Wastewater samples from the Heartland help curb the spread of COVID-19

Wastewater's role in controlling COVID-19 in Mo.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - What gets flushed down the toilet could help control the spread of COVID-19.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would work,” said Marc Johnson, Professor of Microbiology at University of Missouri.

Johnson doesn’t find what goes down the toilet to be wasteful.

“A person is infected with a respiratory virus. Some of it comes out their waste, and it gets diluted in a million gallons of wastewater, and you want us to tell how much is there. Yeah right, come on, but it works,” said Johnson.

Raw, wastewater samples from nearly 100 facilities across Missouri, including in Cape Girardeau, are sent to Johnson’s lab. Researchers then track genetic markers of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The project is funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant through the Department of Health and Senior Services. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Department of Natural Resources, and researchers at University of Missouri – Columbia are working together.

“We hope that this data is having a positive impact and helping the officials to respond quicker to any outbreaks,” said Todd Fulton.

Fulton started sending samples from the City of Cape Girardeau’s wastewater back in July.

“It’s pretty interesting. Throughout my life wastewater, it’s always a new surprise of things that we can learn,” said Fulton.

“It is completely unbiased, so the way I see it is more than anything else it’s a reality check,” said Johnson.

The wastewater data closely trends with COVID-19 tests human’s take, according to Chris Wieberg, Director of the Water Protection Program with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“If we’re seeing upward trends in an area where we aren’t seeing a lot of folks going out and getting tested for the virus, then the Department of Health and Senior Services can focus efforts in that way with the local public health agencies,” said Wieberg.

“I mean we can’t detect it before the infection occurs. Once we detected it, they are infected. You can’t stop that, but you at least know that it’s going on and can prevent it from getting worse,” said Johnson.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services shares the data with health officials in the communities the wastewater samples came from.

In Southeast Missouri, wastewater is collected from facilities in Cape Girardeau, Charleston, Dexter, Farmington, Marston, Perryville, and Sikeston.

Samples also get test from Department of Corrections facilities, veterans homes, and mental health facilities in Missouri.

The project leaders plan to release data to the public soon.

Copyright 2020 KFVS. All rights reserved.