Tracking COVID through wastewater

Courtesy of the CDC

Recent report predicts local Omicron surge is in decline

The COVID-19 Omicron variant’s surge in the Twin Cities metro area is declining, a new study has found. The report is based on data from 13 metro wastewater plants surveyed by the University of Minnesota Medical School and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Based on its statewide wastewater surveillance data, the prevalence of disease is predicted to decline significantly in the Twin Cities metro region sometime in February, said the report released last week. But the study also pointed out that the Omicron variant remains high in the south-central section of Greater Minnesota.

“We sampled about 67% of the population of the state,” said Dr. Tim Schacker, U of M Medical School vice dean for research. He told the MSR, “We’ve been measuring viruses in wastewater for the duration of the pandemic. 

“What we’re registering now is just that with the Omicron variants, where the levels are just extraordinarily high, we’re starting to see that in wastewater, especially in the Twin Cities.”

The University began studying wastewater in April 2020 as a research project led by faculty at the U of M Medical School, Duluth campus. Wastewater can be tested for certain molecules (RNA) from SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID.  

University researchers in published research in 2021 found that viral detection starts to increase in wastewater approximately two weeks before clinical cases show up in hospitals and clinics.

Dr. Glenn Simmons, now an assistant cancer biology professor at Cornell University, was involved in the study. He told the MSR, “COVID is a virus that can infect the gastrointestinal system. It not only affects the respiratory system but also the intestines. We just wanted to start looking at the wastewater in the different cities [and] in the different communities to get an indication whether there’s an outbreak or not.”

However, both Simmons and Schacker quickly warned that despite their study’s results, COVID is very much still with us. According to Axios, the U.S. nationwide is now averaging about 650,000 new cases per day, and deaths from COVID-19 are rising—over 2,300 Americans per day on average, nearly a 30% increase over the past two weeks.

A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey in January found that Black (43%) and Latino (57%) adults are more likely than Whites (27%) to worry about the Omicron’s effects, especially in regards to missing work or getting seriously ill due to infection.  

KFF also found that over 70% of the public say that they are both tired (75%) and frustrated (73%) by the state of the pandemic, and 77% see it as inevitable that most people across the country will get the virus.

Simmons says he doesn’t believe that the U of M study will, in the short run, convince people “because the information doesn’t really add up. We can monitor what’s happening…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of people are going to be automatically in the hospitals.”

“We haven’t done nearly as well [previously] as we have with this current virus,” Simmons added. “I think we’ve going to have [the virus] in some form or fashion” for the foreseeable future. He also dismissed the herd immunity theory: “I don’t think relying exclusively on people getting naturally infected and it just being okay is going to be the best way.”

“I can’t predict if there will be a new variant,” Schacker said, adding that people still should get vaccinated. “I would hope that [the study] would help to convince some people who have not been vaccinated to get fully vaccinated and boosted because we know that if you are fully vaccinated and boosted you will be protected from serious disease, you’re less likely to go to the hospital, you’re 20 times less likely to die of the disease.”