New coronavirus test: Butler County offers to check wastewater to find COVID-19 outbreaks

Butler County has volunteered to be part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research project to test sewage for early detection of the coronavirus.

The Water & Sewer Department has volunteered to be part of an ongoing initiative by the Ohio Department of Health, the EPA and several universities.

“It appears elements of the virus can be detected in the excretes of humans, both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected people,” Butler County Administrator Judi Boyko said. “It can be detected in wastewater as many as three to seven days before the infection takes hold and leads to severe symptoms.”

Martha Shelby, director of the Water & Sewer Department told the Journal-News she learned about the effort in May and offered county wastewater facilities to be testing sites. To this point, she said major metropolitan areas nationwide are where the testing is being done. But she wanted to get the county in line if and when the research is expanded.

The Ohio Coronavirus Wastewater Monitoring Network website indicates a second wave of testing will depend “on remaining sampling capacity, will be prioritized based on Ohio Public Health Advisory System alert levels and data trends, the Ohio vulnerability index, and the availability/willingness of the city to participate in the sampling effort.”

Former Butler County Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Lerer said this testing is good for finding hot spots in a community, like a college campus, and more efficient than individual testing, at least as a first step.

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“Instead of testing 1,000 (people) you would do a test on stool once a week and see if your count is going up or going down, meaning the collective stools of all the students and faculty and everybody else,” Lerer said. “You can actually gauge the level of viral activity within a given community... at that point you would do more testing.”

Students returning to Miami University has pushed Butler County back into the red or level 3 zone on the governor’s map that tracks the spread of the virus. There were 545 student cases reported from Sept. 2 through 8 at the university. As of Friday there have been 5,124 positive cases, 378 hospitalizations and 87 deaths in the county since the pandemic hit in March.

There are several benefits to the testing according to the wastewater monitoring network website including:

  • Serve as an early warning of infection in communities or congregate settings.
  • Provide information that can help local communities more quickly intervene with protective measures to slow disease spread.
  • Help communities measure the effectiveness of such interventions (quarantine/face coverings/business limitations).
  • Where possible, compare results to previously collected data on prevalence in specific communities to better understand factors affecting disease spread.
  • Determine impacts on disproportionately affected communities or communities where risk of infection is greater.

Shelby said the testing can be pretty specific, at the very least they could isolate the area between the county’s two regional wastewater plants and three smaller systems.

“We would look at which plant it came from and if they wanted to, I’ve read that the universities have been able to take samples from specific dorms, so they’ve been able to get it back to that level,” Shelby said. “Now when the study was proposed to us it was just at the influent to our plants. So they would only know if the area served by that particular plant was seeing an uptick in the virus. If they wanted to try to take it back from there they would have to do a lot more sampling.”

If Butler County is chosen, there would be no cost to the county.

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