About a dozen San Diego County school and child care centers are monitoring for COVID-19 through wastewater thanks to a partnership between UC San Diego and the county.
Both the county and UCSD have been using the wastewater testing program to monitor for the presence of SARS-CoV-2. The approach started as a way to get college students back on UCSD's campus in a safe way.
COVID-19 can be detected in humans' feces even if they are not showing symptoms of the disease, researchers said. Those asymptomatic individuals could still be spreading COVID-19. The early detection system aims to quickly identify children or staff members who may be infected before an outbreak occurs.
Ten K-8th grade schools and two child care centers have been utilizing the early detection program, which is called the Safer at School Early Alert system, for four months as they resume in-person instruction, UC San Diego said.
The schools selected for the pilot program were in communities with a high risk for COVID-19, like San Ysidro, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Southeast San Diego and Vista.
"These communities primarily serve low income and immigrant families who have more challenges accessing COVID-19 testing and may have elevated levels of vaccine hesitancy," UC San Diego Health said.
One of those schools is Vista Grande Elementary School in Tierrasanta, which returned to a hybrid instruction model with 50% of their students in classrooms.
"Many in our community are at high-risk for COVID-19. By participating in the Safer at School Early Alert system, we hope to ease concerns about school safety so that parents and students are comfortable at school while building meaningful relationships and learning," said Vista Grande Principle Tita Cordero-Bautista.
The early detection system uses a robot to collect daily wastewater samples that are then tested at a lab at UC San Diego's School of Medicine. At child care centers, diapers are collected for testing. Researchers say this method allows them to capture positive cases three to five days ahead of a normal COVD-19 test.
If a positive result is found, all students and staff are tested to find the infected individual.
On top of the testing method, school staff swab a square-foot surface daily, which is then sent to another UC San Diego lab for testing. Free testing for children and staff is also available at each school when a positive case is identified through wastewater testing.
UC San Diego's Return to Learn program was the first to utilize the early detection system in order to get students back on campus. It was coupled with daily screening, masking, physical distancing and weekly asymptomatic
testing of students.
"We've learned a great deal creating this approach," said UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. We want to share that knowledge with others to promote better health outcomes in school systems and in communities everywhere."
In September 2020, the method was praised for it's early detection of the virus, which allowed them to test nearly 650 people to isolate the spread.