Sewage from Monticello and Blanding can help track COVID-19

A new study is tracking the prevalence of COVID-19 in Monticello and Blanding by monitoring sewage from the community.

The virus that causes the disease is shed in feces by infected individuals.

A study performed in spring by the local Universities and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) found that virus concentrations in sewage can be measured by collecting a sample at the inlet of sewage treatment plants.

Collecting that information can help communities track the trends of COVID-19.

The measuring units in San Juan County were installed in July and results are collected weekly. Over time, a base level will be established and should be able to accurately predict surges in Monticello and Blanding.

The program got started thanks to Dr. Jennifer Weidhaas, a University of Utah professor who had done similar work prior to the pandemic.

Dr. Weidhaas, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with the Utah Division of Water and a group of scientists from Utah State University, Brigham Young University, and the University of Utah began a pilot program from mid-April through May.

The program was attempting to see if it was feasible to track the coronavirus through sewage treatment plants.

The pilot study found some interesting data. In May, an increase of the virus in Cache Valley was measured in sewage treatment plants ahead of an increase in active case counts in the area.

The study also found that tourist areas, such as Park City and Moab were seeing disproportionate levels of coronavirus in waste water versus other similarly-sized rural communities.

After the initial study of ten treatment plants, the Utah division of water quality expanded the program to 42 sewage treatment plants in Utah, representing approximately 80 percent of the state’s population.

DEQ spokesperson Jared Mendenhall explained that the monitoring gives the community a better idea of the overall health of an area without having to take tests of big portions of the population.

“The hope is, as the pandemic gets under control, that if there is another outbreak, you’re going to see that outbreak in advance,” said Mendenhall.

“Then you can change some of your communications and your testing protocols in order to effectively address public health concerns.”

The early data shows relative stability in Monticello and Blanding, but will continue to be measured and read by scientists involved in the project.

More information on the project and data from the Blanding and Monticello wastewater plants can be found online at WasteWaterVirus.Utah.Gov

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