TREMONTON — A team of Utah scientists have taken a novel — but so far effective, they say — approach to tracking the coronavirus.
Scientists at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Quality, the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University are monitoring 10 sewage treatment plants across the state, according to Utah DEQ Public Information Officer Jared Mendenhall, measuring for genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
The plants are located in Logan, Hyrum, Tremonton, Moab, Orem, Price, Snyderville, Salt Lake City, Timpanogas and South Salt Lake. The plants provide sewer service for approximately 40% of Utah’s population, according to Mendenhall. The plants were selected to capture data from different types and sizes of communities across the state. Samples for the initial program were collected from mid-April through the end of May.
Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah DWQ, said the initial results show the virus can not only be detected in sewage, but scientists also have discovered trends that are generally consistent with known infection rates in Utah communities.
“Monitoring virus in Utah’s sewage systems offers a tool for early detection of rising infections, monitoring community infection trends, and confirmation of low infection rates,” Gaddis said in a statement. “We hope that monitoring the sewage can help in prioritizing limited state resources such as mobile testing.”
Among key findings so far, scientists found that the virus was not detected in water discharged to natural bodies of water after leaving the sewage treatment plants. The virus was found in the water entering all 10 of the plants studied and has been found in 64% of the 171 samples collected so far.
In late May, large increases of virus were measured in water entering Logan and Hyrum sewage treatment plants, which mirrored the increase in active case counts reported for Cache Valley.
Scientists also found that the highest concentrations of virus were found in urban areas, and tourist communities showed higher concentrations per capita than other areas of similar density and size.
According to the Utah DEQ, the virus is shed in feces by infected individuals, including people who don’t show symptoms. Virus concentrations in the sewage can be measured by collecting a sample at the inlet of sewage treatment plants.
Sample collection was conducted voluntarily by plant operators.