Scientists, researchers collecting wastewater to test for COVID

MADISON, Wis. — The coronavirus has been the No. 1 story for almost all of 2020 and this story comes in close at No. 2.

While most of us don’t pay attention to what happens after our toilets flush, scientists and researchers at the Wisconsin State Hygiene Lab are tracking it down and collecting samples of it.

“Science acts in weird ways sometimes,” said senior scientist Martin Shafer.

Shafer is part of a team that is collecting wastewater samples from 67 locations around the state. They’re looking for the the genetic material that causes COVID-19.

“The virus can appear in wastewater before any illness appears in the community,” Shafer said. “So it acts as kind of as an early warning.”

He said this testing goes hand-in-hand with what contact tracers and COVID tests already do.

“We can’t really test 300,000 people twice a week, but we can get an overall assessment of the virus levels in the community by testing the wastewater,” Shafer said.

Team members will go to each collection site about twice a week to collect new samples and bring it back to the lab, where scientists take about two days to compile their findings and share it with public health officials.

“You’re excreting it or shedding it into your fecal matter and you poop and it gets mixed up with everyone else’s and winds up at the wastewater treatment facility and at that point you have a well mixed sample that represents the whole community,” Shafer said.

While Shafer knows the job may literally stink, he said the work they’re doing is helping health leaders decide where they need to flush more resources and attention.

“It’s a really interesting project and it serves the public health goals of the state really well,” Shafer said.

Shafer said the team is still working to collect from more sites and is hoping to collect from at least 100 different sites soon. He said people will be out collecting samples through at least June 2021.