Oct 9, 2020 | NEWS | By Anusha Khanal | Photo by John Le
As part of the ongoing comprehensive testing and COVID-19 prevention efforts, Colorado College has recently begun testing wastewater on campus for the coronavirus.
According to Andrea Bruder, Associate Dean of Faculty who is spearheading the program, monitoring wastewater could provide early warning signals for COVID-19. Because this program is in its pilot stage, samples are currently only collected from South and Mathias Halls twice a week by Miro Kummel, Associate Professor at the Environmental Studies Department, and Bruder, and then sent to a lab at Fort Collins.
Kummel and Bruder are both part of the Science Advisory Group (SAG) for the COVID Advisory Leadership Team. The SAG, which is chaired by Bruder, is responsible for the testing centers, procedures, and protocols on campus as well as choosing data-driven and evidence-based strategies.
It takes around four days for a person to be infectious once they start shedding the virus through their waste, according to Bruder, providing an early warning for a potential outbreak.
Currently, “grab samples” are being collected twice a week, which entails testing water coming out of the sewer lines.
Unlike swab tests, which only provide a “positive” or a “negative” result, wastewater tests show the quantity of virus found in a liter of wastewater. These tests detect the changes in virus concentration, not its presence, as people continue to shed the virus long after they have recovered. If a higher concentration than the baseline is noticed, it provides a window of a few days to conduct enhanced random testing.
“This gives us an extra layer of advanced warning,” Kummel said.
Last week, a slight increase in the virus concentration led to random testing for some Mathias Hall residents.
Wastewater testing will continue on campus as random and enhanced social distancing protocols continue. The program is expected to continue for a year at least, if not more. The team is currently working on introducing composite sampling by using auto-samplers that would collect wastewater every 15 minutes for 24 hours.
The SAG team is also working with El Paso County Health Department to introduce the program for the greater Colorado Springs area and other institutions. Since the closest lab that conducts wastewater testing is located in Fort Collins, this collaboration could help set up a lab locally in the area, reducing the turnaround time of the results.
“Every hour that we can reduce the turnaround time gives us more time to get prepared,” Bruder said.