The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its national wastewater monitoring system in the fall of 2020 to help communities detect early warning signs of the spread of COVID-19. Over the past few years, the program has continued to expand, and now all five of Summit County’s wastewater treatment plants are participating in the free program.
According to CDC website, people infected with the virus excrete it in their feces even though they have no symptoms. This means that wastewater can be tested for the virus to help determine how great a risk it poses at any given time. Although test specimens cannot be correlated back to case rates, Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said this new tool helps keep community leaders informed of the virus’ current threat.
“With this information, we can either increase the resource capacity of society. If we see a huge increase in wastewater, we can reconsider local public health policies, we can use it to track virus trends across communities and quickly identify variants because it can be adjusted depending on what variants are circulating at the time, ”said Wineland .
Example: Wineland said that two of the participating wastewater treatment plants tested positive for the omicron sub-variant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the variant accounts for nearly a quarter of COVID-19 cases nationwide. said Wineland this arouses her interest but that it is unlikely that the county will implement any kind of orders or restrictive measures in the future.
“We will release information when we are concerned that our levels are rising and when we can recommend people to possibly mask again on their own,” Wineland said. “We do not want to put orders back in place. We are at a point where we really want to give individuals the opportunity to make the decisions they need to make to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy.”
The Silverthorne Dillon Joint Sewer Authority, Snake River Wastewater Treatment Plant, Upper Blue Sanitation District, Frisco Sanitation District and Copper Mountain Consolidated Metropolitan District have all signed up to participate in the program.
Wineland said the omicron sub-variant was discovered in the Frisco Sanitation District and Silverthorne Dillon Joint Sewer Authority. There has not been an increase in cases yet, though the county’s case numbers ticked a little upwards compared to recent weeks. Even still, Wineland said she would not be surprised if these wastewater treatment plants and case rates began to show a higher level of the virus due to the number of visitors who have passed through the county this month.
“So far we have not seen an increase in cases yet, but it is possible,” Wineland said. “We also know that we are a global destination. In Summit County, we’re seeing a lot of visitors right now, so it’s not a surprise that we’re going to start seeing (sub-variants) across the nation. “
Wineland said that although the county has no restrictions in place and that case rates are currently low, the pandemic should not be considered “over.” Instead, this kind of tool will help managers track down the virus and inform community members about the extra security measures they should take if the virus becomes a threat again.
Jason Kruckeberg, operations inspector for the Silverthorne Dillon Joint Sewer Authority, said his team already had all the equipment needed to participate in the program. His team collects the samples so a courier can pick them up and take them to a lab on the Front Range.
Kruckeberg noted that in addition to testing for the virus that causes COVID-19, this type of test can be used to detect other risks in society, such as infectious diseases or illegal drug use.
“It has several applications, possibly quite broad,” he said. “One of the reasons you want to do this is that if you try often enough, you might get an early indicator of an increase in cases in your region quite proactively, while going in and testing is usually a reactive event. “
Wineland said all wastewater treatment plants test twice a week for the virus and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.