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Oklahoma COVID wastewater testing shows increase in disease presence

Posted at 6:27 PM, Apr 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 12:46:05-04

TULSA, Okla. — Murky, smelly wastewater is what Oklahoma researchers are using to test for COVID.

A team is taking the unique approach at the University of Oklahoma. Wastewater testing allows the OU team to gather COVID data one week earlier than human testing.

“We excrete COVID through going to the toilet. So, it’s discharged into the toilet and then it’s found in the sewage system," said Halley Reeves, vice president of Community Health Impact for OU Medicine. "Our teams will go out to manholes or wastewater treatment facilities and extract the sample."

Their concern now is preventing a surge. The team is seeing an increase of COVID in wastewater across the state.

“Our wastewater surveillance is indicating that there is a little bit higher community transmission than what the reported case numbers indicate,” OU Epidemiologist Katrin Kuhn said.

The team is working to find out why the concentration of COVID is increasing in wastewater.

“We’re concerned that it may be because of the more transmissible variants," said Bradley Stevenson, OU assistant professor of microbiology. "It could also be that people are just focused on getting vaccinated and not following the distancing rules as closely."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many people infected with COVID-19 first shed the virus in their waste even before developing symptoms.

The OU team of researchers started testing Oklahoma wastewater last summer. The testing expanded to Tulsa in January.

The City of Tulsa is paying OU nearly $50,000 for sampling and testing at three wastewater treatment plants once a week for 25 weeks.

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