Since 2020, the city of Boise has been testing wastewater for insights about COVID in the community. The research now provides insights into variants.
BOISE, Idaho — If you look and listen, water entering a treatment facility seems very unobtrusive. However, if you have the right lens, wastewater is actually very valuable.
“We send samples to a lab that performs analysis to measure the amount of COVID virus in the wastewater,” said Haley Falconer, environmental manager for the city of Boise’s public works department.
Falconer said that since testing began in the spring of 2020, the wastewater has become a major boon to COVID insights.
“What we have learned about the data is that it is a leading indicator of clinical COVID cases. So what that means if we start to see a rise in the virus in the wastewater, we can expect a rise in the number of COVID cases 5 to 7 days later,” Falconer said.
For example, results of wastewater tests with water samples from Boise, Garden City and Eagle dated Sept. 10 showed a 2021 high in COVID particles. Sure enough, days later, Ada County reported its highest daily number of cases of the year.
Looking through the dashboard, data shows that the 2021 peak of COVID in wastewater was back in September. So, how does that compare to what we’re doing right now?
“That’s an excellent question, the virus load has dropped. I looked at it yesterday and it seems they are rising again. We send samples three days a week, so we’ll post them as soon as we get those results and update them. I think we need to determine what that looks like based on COVID cases in the coming weeks,” Falconer said.
The COVID conversation has evolved since March 2020 and now includes terms few knew about pre-COVID. One phrase that many have become fixated on recently is “virus variant.” Wastewater testing has resulted in providing valuable insights on that topic.
“The most helpful thing in the last few months has been the addition of variant testing, which we’ve been doing with the University of Missouri for almost a year now, and so they can screen for the variants and what we saw with the delta variant is that we have the presence of that variant in the wastewater before we recognized a clinical case in the region. And that is something we are now doing for the latest (omicron) variant,” says Falconer.
That latest variant, omicron, has not yet been detected, but is expected to happen in the coming weeks.
So, is this a situation where Boise will continue to monitor wastewater for the foreseeable future?
“Hard to say, but I would think so. Where we are now, I can’t imagine that we will stop monitoring for the SARS-COV-2 Virus (COVID-19). I think even as we move forward and things stabilize a little bit, I imagine we’ll do some level of regular analysis because the trend is really important in this wastewater data, see if there’s a substantial change. So we need to analyze enough to have a trend to watch. I think where we might also see additions in talking to our local health partners, things like the norovirus or the seasonal flu are other potential things that we can test for in the water that could impact local health data,” Falconer said.