Most people don’t want to think about their waste after it’s flushed down the toilet, but researchers can actually use waste samples to test for COVID-19.
The Ohio Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency are partnering to test sewage and wastewater for the presence of coronavirus genetic material, ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragments, in feces in several Ohio cities including Cleveland.
According to researchers, this data will help cities predict cases because the virus can show up in a person’s feces 3-7 days before symptoms, said Rebecca Fugitt of ODH's Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection.
“It gives communities an advance notice that you’re going to have some increasing cases or see an increase in cases in your community,” Fugitt said.
The study is funded by a $2 million allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act.
The initial round of sampling will be done with wastewater utility departments in some of Ohio’s largest municipal areas, including Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, and Dayton with plans to add more cities.
It is not unusual for researchers to test wastewater for viruses, Fugitt said. Some communities have used this method to test for opioids or polio, she said.
The testing is done before the water is treated, and Fugitt said there’s no risk of the virus being in drinking water. Wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat the water for viruses like this.
More information about the research, including sampling data, will be posted on Ohio’s COVID-19 website.
U.S. EPA is a partner in these research efforts and ODH and Ohio EPA are closely coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on this research.