NEW Water continues sampling of wastewater to track COVID-19

Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 4:21 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Since the start of the pandemic, state and local health departments have been trying to contain and monitor the spread of COVID-19 in communities through testing. But what if there was a way to get on top of a potential surge, by going below?

Dozens of Wisconsin wastewater treatment facilities have been doing it for two years now by monitoring the coronavirus in wastewater and giving communities an early warning for a potential outbreak.

“We serve all Brown County for the most part,” said Tom Sigmund, executive director of NEW Water, the brand of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District.

NEW Water processes and treats about 40 million gallons of wastewater each day, giving them a large sample to draw from for COVID-19 testing. Twice a week, treatment operators collect a raw sample of wastewater from both the Green Bay and De Pere facility to send off for COVID testing.

“What they’re looking for is the novel coronavirus. If you’re infected or communities infected, you’ll start shedding the virus before you test positive,” said Sigmund.

“There have been times where testing has been in short supply so people may not be able to get access to a test,” said Dr. Jonathan Meiman, a chief medical officer with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “This allows us to look at what’s going on in the community independent of what people are doing in terms of whether they’re getting tested or not.”

That means wastewater could give health departments an early indication if there’s a COVID surge on the way before it shows up in case numbers or hospitalizations.

“It does provide kind of an early warning in terms of what may be coming,” said Dr. Meiman.

All of the data collected from across the state is put on DHS’s website. The most recent data shows Green Bay’s wastewater had a moderate decrease in COVID, while De Pere’s wastewater showed a major increase in COVID during that same time.

“I think what locals are looking for is really just another data source another way to confirm what they think they’re seeing the communities that they can take action if there if it’s warranted in their own local community,” said Dr. Meiman.

The state plans to continue monitoring wastewater into next year at least and NEW Water has no plans of stopping either. In fact, monitoring COVID in wastewater has opened doors to other possibilities like tracking new variants.

“If we have the potential to identify one day through wastewater, yet another tool in the tool belt,” said Dr. Meiman.

It can even process precious metals, which is something NEW Water studied in 2018.

“I wash my hands every day, just a little bit of the ring is dissolved into water,” said Sigmund.

They found 2,788 troy ounces of microscopic gold went through their facility, which is equivalent to $3 million at that time. “We don’t know how to get it out cost-effectively, but someday we hope to figure it out,” said Sigmund.

So until then, NEW Water will continue sending in its wastewater samples for COVID testing.

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