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Wastewater Data Collection Shows COVID-19 Spike, Could Mean Future Surge

There’s been a spike in coronavirus fragments found in wastewater in the Cleveland area, which could mean a surge in COVID-19 cases is on the horizon for Northeast Ohio.

Some Ohio sewer districts send wastewater samples to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) and the Environmental Protection Agency so they can monitor for coronavirus genetic material in the water.

There’s been an increase in the three wastewater treatment facilities in the Cleveland area, said Scott Broski, superintendent of environmental services for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

“The wastewater serves as a leading indicator of a potential outbreak of illness in the community, and people start shedding the virus in advance of becoming ill,” Broski said.

That means we haven’t yet seen the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that might come from a spike.

ODH posts the data collected from regional sewer districts from across the state on its website.

Cleveland’s Westerly treatment facility reported 460,000 million gene copies per day on November 22. By December 6, that number had increased to 3,600,000 million gene copies detected that day.

The testing is done before the wastewater treatment, so there’s no risk of drinking water being contaminated with the virus, according to Ohio Department of Health officials.

“It’s up to the local boards of health as to what they want to put in place and enact as a result of that data,” Broski said.

That may mean alerting hospitals of a potential surge and adding pop-up testing sites.

Broski is hopeful people remain vigilant, continue to wear masks, and practice good hand hygiene.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District hasn’t used this technology to detect viruses in waste before, Broski said, but the region has used it to detect pollutants like heavy metals.

The program is funded by a $2 million allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

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