EAU CLAIRE, Wisconsin (WEAU) — Twice a week, you can find research students Laura Horstman and Logan Anderson collecting samples from the depths of Towers North and South.
“Now this wastewater can be anything from shower water, bath water, to toilet water,” says UWEC pre-med student Logan Anderson.
a full 24-hour sample for the accurate display of a whole day. Start to finish?
“Yes, we’ve definitely got the system down,” Horstman laughs.
Sealed and ready for analysis, the samples are sent to a lab in Madison, where the wastewater is screened for the presence of COVID RNA.
“Specifically measure the RNA and gene copies per liter so they use a PCR test,” explains Anderson.
Then map that data for possible use as a reliable predictor for Covid-19 outbreaks.
“We’re working in Accel and graphing the positive cases that we really know across campus and we’re plotting that versus our positive wastewater samples that we get from Madison, so we’re trying to see if there’s a connection between the two,” says Anderson. “If there is a spike in positive cases and see if there is a latency period between the positive cases and the positive wastewater.”
The students are led by Crispin Pierce, a professor of public health and environmental studies at the university.
With work underway since August, Pierce says the results are just beginning to surface.
“The idea behind our sampling is that if we can detect the RNA or genetic material of a virus or a bacteria in wastewater, we can implement testing, vaccination and even quarantine where necessary,” Pierce says.
Add that positive cases should peak in wastewater earlier than people showing signs of illness, but so far this has not been the case.
“We don’t see a correlation, one is the low number of cases on campus, the other is the appearance of RNA in the wastewater, we thought it would show up sooner, but it didn’t last longer, so even after students no longer have COVID- 19 positive, we found the COVID RNA in their wastewater.
Still, Pierce says these kinds of negative scientific findings are just as important to his students as positive ones in public health.
“I also really like looking at the data side of it because I collect the samples and then look back at what I’m doing, comparing the numbers between positive cases, what we measure to find correlations between them,” Horstman says a second year , kinesiology major at UWEC.
A unique project for the Blugolds and a unique project rooted in hands-on work.
This is just one of three research projects that Dr. Pierce says his students are working to further protect the Eau Claire community from the virus.
The other two include testing to see if the air ventilation systems are sufficient to reduce the transmission of COVID through aerosols on campus and at a local children’s nature center.
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