A possible COVID-19 outbreak at U.C. San Diego was thwarted by the university’s early warning program that tests wastewater, university officials claim.
“Wastewater has been used for a long time in the infectious disease world for viruses that are shed in the gastrointestinal tract. It’s one of the ways we got polio eliminated, in a large part of the world, was to look at wastewater treatment plants," said Dr. Robert Schooley, an infectious disease specialist and distinguished professor of medicine at UCSD.
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Ph.D. student Amanda Wacker is one of the students who received a notification alerting the UCSD community to get tested if they used the restroom in the area of the Revelle dorms the morning of Sept. 3.
“It’s good they’re checking. I didn’t know you could detect in that way,” said Wacker.
University officials say the early warning and notification allowed them to conduct 647 COVID-19 tests the following weekend. Two people tested positive and were isolated, possibly preventing an outbreak that could have spread to hundreds, or even thousands of students.
“Both were asymptomatic. They were completely unaware they were infected. And without this approach, we wouldn’t have known they were there," Dr. Schooley said.
For more than a month UCSD has been doing daily sewage testing from two clinics, a research building, and the Revelle dormitories.
“What wastewater lets us do is test hundreds of people at one time with each sample. We can then go to people who might have produced a stool in that wastewater stream and test them individually, quickly and identify an infected person," said Dr. Schooley.
Doctors say wastewater testing can catch infections earlier, and even detect positive cases missed by saliva or nasal swab tests. UCSD is hoping to get 100 wastewater collectors to outfit the entire campus.
As of Sept.5, 48 UCSD students have tested positive.
The University of Arizona and Utah State say they've also prevented outbreaks on campus by testing wastewater.