LANSING — The state is putting $10 million dollars into a new COVID-19 testing plan. Only this testing method doesn’t involve spit or a Q-tip up the nose. Instead of waiting in long lines, all people have to do is…poop.
“Since nearly 70 percent of Michigan residents rely on public wastewater systems, this COVID-19 surveillance program has the potential to provide critical, life-saving data on COVID-19 transmission within a large portion of Michigan’s population,” said department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy Director Liesl Clark.
Scientists at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan State University and others have been testing wastewater for the COVID-19 virus for months. Now the state is ramping up the effort.
The three-month pilot program through the state department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will fund local public health departments with their efforts to coordinate with universities, counties and other labs across the state to do more wastewater testing.
This is a, “pretty remarkable” step for COVID-19 testing in the state, said Tami Sivy, chemistry professor at Saginaw Valley.
Sivy and her team have been testing seven wastewater plants around the Great Lakes Bay Region, but now they are likely going to add the Saginaw Correctional Facility, and more sites in the Thumb and Arenac County, she said.
They’ve also been testing SVSU’s wastewater for the last few weeks to make sure there isn’t a spike in cases as students return to school. At the University of Arizona, similar testing allowed the university to figure out not only which dorm coronavirus cases were coming from, but the two students that were positive.
“It’s a good way to do kind of a community testing, without individual testing but yet being able to, hopefully, isolate where it’s coming from to better gear your testing on individual humans,” Sivy said.
The testing methodology originated at the beach.
The labs use quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR methods to test the wastewater for traces of the virus. The genetic testing method has been used for years to provide fast turnaround responses for whether a beach has E. coli.
But scientists in Michigan and across the world discovered the qPCR methods can also be used to test human waste for traces of the virus. Scientists watch for upticks in the amount of virus in the waste, and from there can alert local health departments to head-off a potential surge.
“The ability to predict outbreaks on college campuses, at nursing homes, prisons, and other congregate care facilities could be game-changer in our mission to slow the spread of this virus,” said Clark.
The plan is for EGLE to coordinate sample collection, lab analysis, data reporting, and communication with local monitoring teams across Michigan.
“This partnership could provide early indicators of COVID-19 in a community and allow public health to take quick actions to protect the health and safety of Michiganders,”said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).
The ultimate goal of the pilot is to target wastewater surveillance programs that are already testing for COVID-19 to establish a standardized and coordinated network of monitoring systems. EGLE plans to have the network up and running by October 1.
“They’re recognizing that this could be a great way to use our skills and to apply them to this virus testing and wastewater, it’s really just a different medium,” said Sivy. “But it still has the same implications and same goals of protecting human health.”
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