Why are universities doing things like testing wastewater and pooling spit?

Testing and Contact Tracing

A: Testing samples of wastewater and pooled spit in places with communal living, such as colleges and universities, provide several valuable benefits in detecting COVID-19.

TESTING OF ASYMPTOMATIC PEOPLE. When people are living and socializing together in the same building, there is a risk of asymptomatic spread. If you wait until people are symptomatic to test them, the disease may have already spread to others in the community.

TESTING WASTEWATER ALLOWS YOU TO CATCH THE DISEASE EARLY. Early on in the process of COVID-19, there’s viral shedding in feces. Thus, if you can identify a building where there is early evidence of the virus in the wastewater, you can then test the individuals who live there, possibly catching cases before people become symptomatic.

EFFICIENCY. Testing is expensive. Pooling samples (of either sewage or spit) saves scarce resources. Pooled testing, however, is most efficient when the prevalence of the disease is low, and you don’t have to follow up with individual testing.

Institutions such as the University of Arizona, the University of Virginia, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Colorado State University have successfully been using wastewater testing programs for months.

Widespread testing alone isn’t enough, but it can help us contain the spread by catching cases early. The earlier we track cases, the better we can follow up with contact tracing, before potentially exposed individuals spread the virus to their loved ones. This is particularly important as college and university students start returning home to their families for Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, keep social distancing, wear a mask, wash hands, and stick to spaces with fresh air (the outdoors is safest). Also, since we are talking about poop, remember to shut the lid before you flush! (Read our toilet plume post linked below to find out more.)

NPR Article on Wastewater Testing

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