JoCo will study its sewage in hopes of getting ahead of next COVID-19 surge

The Myron K. Nelson Wastewater Treatment Complex in Mission, KS. (File photo.)

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Health experts in Johnson County will soon be studying bowls of swirling water to help them predict a possible next coronavirus surge. But it won’t be tea leaves they’re reading. Instead, it will be sewer samples.

The county has joined a statewide study of community sewage systems in Kansas that experts hope could give them up to a one-week jump on the next wave of the disease.

Samples from six wastewater treatment plants in the county are being collected so scientists can look for RNA from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which has caused more than 14,000 infections, 560 hospitalizations and 201 deaths to date in Johnson County.

The county is joining a study that started in May on a smaller scale and has now grown to 97 of Kansas’ 105 counties.

Wastewater may help reveal community spread

Public health officials say studying wastewater could be an important – and relatively easy – way to gather data about the spread of the coronavirus. That’s in part because data collected from such samples will be coming from everyone hooked up to the public sewer system in the county, not just those who get tested.

Virus particles are shed mainly via droplets from coughs and breathing, but they also pass through individuals’ system and show up in their stool. However, there’s no evidence that virus particles that have traveled through the digestive tract and into the wastewater system can cause anyone to become sick. 

Individuals’ RNA contained in wastewater samples is an early indicator of how much virus is circulating in the community because many people who don’t show symptoms, and even some who do, may not get tested. In fact, communities around the U.S. and the world have been using wastewater as an early predictor of case surges.

Other studies have shown that virus increases usually show up in wastewater samples about a week before testing sites and doctors’ offices see an accompanying uptick.

“Not only will this give us more information about COVID-19 transmission in our communities, including Johnson County, but the data will assist us in response to the pandemic,” said Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The data, “will add another tool for us as we make decisions to control transmission of the virus,” said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the county health department.

KDHE reached out to KU to start the study last spring. That initial study included a dozen Kansas towns. In the summer, the study was expanded to 18 municipalities. Officials in Lawrence and elsewhere say they can use the one-week warning to prepare for an increased demand on medical resources that a surge would bring.