University of Arizona testing sewage water for COVID-19

Updated: Aug. 24, 2020 at 5:52 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Students at the University of Arizona filed back into some in-person classes on Monday, Aug. 24. Many have already moved on campus after getting a test for COVID-19, but the university is testing more than just their students, they’re testing what they send down the drain.

“Just to get a good overview, cross section of everyone on campus,” said Jeff Blizinck, staff engineer for Arizona’s WEST Center.

Blizinck normally designs and help install research mechanisms, but Monday, he was taking wastewater samples to test for COVID-19.

“You just expect if it’s something unusual, you will probably be doing it at some point,” he said.

Each day he and Nicolas Betts-Childress, a junior a Arizona studying engineering management, collect samples at ten locations, rotating five each day. Using a long pole and a bottle to scoop a sample, the chore takes about half an hour to collect the samples.

Betts-Childress is learning on the job, while helping to keep campus open.

“It opened up a door for me, and I can help contribute to my fellow students by getting them back in their dorms and feeling safe,” said Betts-Childress.

Those samples, then head to the lab where Dr. Ian Pepper, director of the university’s WEST Center and his team test it for COVID-19.

“Because poop doesn’t lie… poop can tell you the truth about you and your community,” Pepper said.

Humans shed viruses this way, and they can be detected about a week before the onset of symptoms, giving the university time to test, trace and treat. Pepper’s lab at the WEST Center only has samples from the last week at the campus.

“So far so good. All the results are negative, so we are now continuing to take samples this week,” he said.

The lab has been collecting samples from the Agua Nueva, a water reclamation site, since March. Pepper said there was a sharp increase in COVID-19 concentration about six weeks ago, when cases were spiking, but there is good news.

“Last week Agua Nueva was negative for the first time in months,” he said.

If anything comes back positive, officials should have a heads up.

“I may be lifting poo-covered manhole covers, but I feel like I’m contributing and helping in any way I can,” said Betts-Childress.

The university is planning on putting machine sampling devices at some locations, so viral loads can be checked multiple times a day.

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