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UArizona researchers to test wastewater for flu, COVID-19 as Gov’s order tries to limit testing mandates

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 10:12 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -The University of Arizona is getting students back on campus and back in the classroom as COVID-19 cases surge in the state and the community. The university plans to use their wastewater testing strategy to help control outbreaks.

Dr. Ian Pepper, director of the WEST Center and professor of environmental science at UArizona, has been leading research and wastewater testing efforts. He and his research team at Agua Nueva have seen an increase in COVID-19 in wastewater in Pima County. As cases rise and a new health advisory is issued, it’s something to be expected.

Pepper said the current virus load and concentration found in wastewater is very close to the highest level they have ever seen—and at concerning levels. Thousands of students are heading back to school and campus—thousands that the university cannot legally mandate get COVID-19 tested due to the governor’s executive order and law.

The executive order states that unless there is a “significant outbreak,” universities cannot mandate COVID-19 tests for students. The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) said they are still working on a definition of what a “significant outbreak” is, as K-12 students are already back in class and universities are starting up.

“The terms of the EO were incorporated into the budget reconciliation bill on education. Our team is developing a definition of significant outbreak that universities and county health departments can use to validate the existence of a significant outbreak, which they then would elevate to ADHS for concurrence based on the relevant supporting data,” said an ADHS spokesperson in an email statement to KOLD News 13.

When asked when they anticipate having a definition so universities and schools can test students, ADHS said “shortly.”

“Shortly. Until then, we’re ready to consult with universities and county health departments as needed,” said an ADHS spokesperson in an email statement to KOLD News 13.

Pepper said wastewater could be part of that measure.

“One of those thresholds could be the wastewater virus concentration,” said Pepper.

This would be integral in the university’s ability to test and control the virus, and continue Pepper’s research.

Pepper said they will keep testing wastewater, and now that they are able to estimate how many people are sick from a given sample, that may be able to help their cause. Also, since they will be grabbing the samples from around 20 locations weekly, they’ll be testing the wastewater for another infectious disease responsible for thousands of deaths every year.

“Why not monitor for influenza as well, so that’s what we’re going to do,” said Pepper.

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