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Utah officials using wastewater to catch COVID-19 in communities

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As the state moves to a “steady state” COVID-19 response, the health department has moved away from community testing sites.

While fewer people are getting tested, the state still has ways to stay on top of which communities the virus is circulating in. One way is with wastewater.

Wastewater surveillance can be an early line of defense. Officials at the state health lab that does the sequencing to identify variants said they were actually able to detect omicron in wastewater a week before a clinical test caught it in someone.

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2News spoke with Dr. Phillip Heck, the general manager of the Central Valley Water Reclamation facility. It’s the plant for about 600,000 people in the state, or as Heck put it, “from the Ochres all the way to the Wasatch.”

Heck said the plant was probably the first in the state to start screening samples for COVID-19. They have an automated sampler on the influent into the plant that collects samples every 24 hours. They handed those samples off to the state on Monday

“We take that sample and we split it and give part of it to the health department,” Heck said.

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That’s where Dr. Nathan LaCross, manager of the wastewater surveillance program for the Utah Department of Health, comes in. LaCross said they collect samples from 32 different treatment facilities across the state.

“Tooele, Park City, Coalville, Moab, Vernal, Roosevelt, Cedar City, Saint George...” LaCross said.

He said they have about 88 percent of the state’s population covered. Once they get the samples, they send them off to the state’s lab.

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“Then we get a quantification result so we know how much, how many copies of the viral genome we’re finding per unit volume in the wastewater," LaCross said.

With testing dropping off, wastewater monitoring might be all the more important in detecting COVID-19 in the community.

“I think now more than ever it really shows how important that is because that changing individual test situation,” LaCross said. “It doesn’t effect our data whatsoever. We’re still getting the exact same data we always have.”

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LaCross said currently, cases are “creeping up, unfortunately."

He said the trends are increasing in certain places but are still at low levels.

“There’s a couple sites that I would call elevated. Moab and one of the sites near Park City are the ones that spring primarily to mind," LaCross said.

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He suspects that has a lot to do with travel and tourism.

As COVID-19 evolves, what does the future look like for the wastewater surveillance program? LaCross said he hopes to see it grow.

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“It doesn’t have to just be limited to SARS-CoV-2," he said, "and in the coming year or so, we really hope to expand to additional targets.”

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