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State puts $10 million into surveillance network for COVID-19 in wastewater

Michigan State University

The state of Michigan is launching a pilot effort to establish a wastewater surveillance system for COVID-19.

Yes, the novel coronavirus can be detected in human poop—even when people are asymptomatic, or have yet to show symptoms. And there are a number of pre-existing wastewater testing programs already running in Michigan.

This pilot program will harness that research, and put it all together into a wider surveillance network that could help detect COVID-19 outbreaks—before anyone has even tested positive for the virus.

Scott Dean, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said the program can hopefully be a sort of early warning system for potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

“It really gives us a tool that will allow us to inform local public health actions to prevent further spread, before we even have reached the point where we’ve got people with positive cases,” Dean said.

“And by getting this early warning system in place, it really has the potential to be a game changer in our mission to slow the spread of this virus.”

Dean said wastewater detection can be particularly useful in congregate settings, like universities and nursing homes. Local public health officials can take steps to test, trace, and isolate positive cases before the virus further spreads through the community.

Dean said the state will its network of labs equipped to test for the e.coli bacterium in water to do COVID-19 wastewater sampling. He said if the data collection effort goes well in the pilot, the plan is to make it public in a dashboard format so that it can “help not only local health departments, but communities really understand COVID-19 incidence within their community.”

The state is putting $10 million into the pilot. It starts October 1, and will run through the end of the year.

The ongoing, independent wastewater testing efforts the pilot will tap into are:

•             Bay County (Saginaw Valley State University)

•             Tawas City (Saginaw Valley State University)

•             City of Frankenmuth (Saginaw Valley State University)

•             Clinton Township, Macomb County (Oakland County Health Department or universities)

•             City of Warren, Macomb County (BioBot initially, now Michigan State University)

•             Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Utility Department (Michigan State University)

•             Michigan State University and City of East Lansing (Michigan State University)

•             Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant (Michigan State University)

•             Genesee Wastewater Treatment Plant (Michigan State University)

•             Marquette Wastewater Treatment Plant (Michigan State University)

•             Great Lakes Water Authority (Michigan State University)

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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