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Mayfield Ky. wastewater testing project helps pin point community COVID-19 outbreaks

Dr. Bikram Subedi extracts the virus from wastewater in his chemistry lab at Murray State...
Dr. Bikram Subedi extracts the virus from wastewater in his chemistry lab at Murray State University.(Co-immunity Project)
Published: Dec. 30, 2020 at 2:14 PM CST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KFVS) - A Mayfield wastewater testing project is helping pinpoint community outbreaks of COVID-19 before residents experience symptoms.

The project could allow for more targeted measures to prevent spread of the disease.

The project is a partnership between Graves County Health Department, Mayfield Electric and Water Systems, Murray State University (MSU) and the University of Louisville Co-Immunity Project, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

It was launched in early November.

While early data is still sparse, the project already has identified spikes in COVID before the traditional clinical and testing models.

“The project is essentially an early warning system that gives health officials and policymakers the information they need to focus additional testing and treatment where there are specific outbreaks, thus helping avoid the need for more county-wide or statewide shutdowns,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “Wastewater testing can help more of us get back to normal more quickly by identifying where outbreaks are most prevalent over time.”

The MSU chemistry and biology labs are led by Assistant Professor Dr. Bikram Subedi and Associate Professor Dr. Gary ZeRuth.

They analyze the samples to count copies of the SARS-CoV-2 virus RNA and look for changes.

Dr. Subedi explained, “SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been shown to be shed into the wastewater from infected persons regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms. Detection and measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater therefore serves as a comprehensive, non-invasive, near real-time, and cost-effective approach to monitoring COVID 19 infection within communities that is not dependent on individuals submitting to testing. Trends in SARS CoV-2 RNA levels found in wastewater can be used as an early warning of virus outbreaks within the community and inform administrators executing public health interventions.”

“This is similar to the practice of having canaries in a coal mine. It shows us that there is an infection in our community before symptoms present themselves in individuals,” said Graves County Health Department Director Noel Coplen.

“It’s a non-traditional partnership and we are proud to have the opportunity to do our part to slow the spread of COVID in our community,” said Marty Ivy, general superintendent at Mayfield Electric and Water Systems.

“The Co-Immunity Project wastewater testing program also has been working in Louisville and Northern Kentucky to monitor sewage for early indications of COVID-19 trends to help mitigate spread of the disease,” said Dr. Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville Envirome Institute, and co-investigator of the Co-Immunity Project. “Our work has found that levels of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater are consistently correlated with infection levels in a community. We now have in place a lab at MSU that can continue this work and help the local health department better assess levels of community infection and determine appropriate interventions.”

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