University of Arizona Stops a Covid-19 Outbreak by Following the Feces

After wastewater monitoring detected the virus in a dorm’s sewage, the school discovered and quarantined two asymptomatic infections

A billboard that reads "STOP COVID-19" stands out in the desert along Route 89 in Arizona
University of Arizona leaders were able to prevent a potential Covid-19 outbreak by testing wastewater. Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

The University of Arizona managed to nip an outbreak of Covid-19 in the bud by monitoring its students’ poop, report Paulina Pineda and Rachel Leingang for the Arizona Republic.

Some people infected with the novel coronavirus shed fragments of its genetic material in their feces, which can then be detected in wastewater even if they’re asymptomatic. This method can offer health officials an early warning because the virus may show up in sewage days before infected people show symptoms and submit themselves for testing. This monitoring technique has been used by cities and even national parks across the country and the world.

At the University of Arizona (UA), researchers were collecting samples of sewage from 20 buildings on campus as part of the school’s testing regimen as roughly 5,000 students returned to campus for the 2020-2021 academic year, reports Jaclyn Peiser for the Washington Post.

This week, the technique detected coronavirus genetic material in the Likins dorm’s wastewater. On Wednesday the school tested all 311 people associated with the dorm. Those tests revealed two students who were experiencing asymptomatic infections, and UA swiftly quarantined them, per the Post.

“We in fact found cases that no one would have known about and now we’re contact tracing all of their contacts to find out how many other students may be positive and asymptomatic,” says Robert Robbins, the school’s president, in a news briefing.

Testing on campus had turned up 47 positive coronavirus tests as of Thursday morning, reports Christopher Conover for Arizona Public Media.

Other colleges monitoring their wastewater as they attempt to resume instruction in what is sure to be a highly unusual academic year include the University of California at San Diego and Syracuse University, according to the Post.

"Testing the wastewater gives you an idea of the number of cases within a community and if the numbers are increasing or decreasing," says Ian Pepper, director of UA’s Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center which is conducting wastewater surveillance on campus, in a statement. "The approach can also be used to help determine if an intervention is working to reduce the transmission of the virus."

UA is also using an exposure notification app called COVID Watch, reports Shaq Davis for The app, which has roughly 11,000 users, detects nearby devices via bluetooth and will send out a notification to anyone who has come in close contact with someone who later reports themselves as infected.

Other campuses, including Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University, have experienced large enough spikes in cases that they were forced to switch to online only classes, according to the Post.

This instance of using wastewater to detect a nascent outbreak before it spread widely shows the promise of this monitoring technique, says Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General who is guiding UA’s reopening, in a press conference.

“Nobody would have known that otherwise, but with that early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” says Carmona. “And you think about if we had missed it, if we had waited until they became symptomatic, and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?”

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