How metro Detroit officials are using raw sewage to track and detect COVID-19 outbreaks

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click to enlarge Detroit Water and Sewerage Department manhole. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department manhole.

Metro Detroit health and water officials are teaming up with Michigan State University to analyze untreated sewage to detect and track COVID-19 outbreaks — and even provide an early warning of an outbreak.

“Everybody poops, everybody pees,” John Norton, director of energy, research, and innovation at Great Lakes Water Authority, said with a chuckle at a news conference Tuesday.

That biological fact is enabling scientists to test samples of untreated sewage with the goal of providing advance notice of coronavirus outbreaks in nine ZIP codes in metro Detroit: 48235 (Detroit), 48210 (Detroit), 48205 (Detroit), 48076 (Southfield), 48237 (Oak Park), 48322 (West Bloomfield Twp.), 48021 (Eastpointe), 48310 (Sterling Heights), and 48044 (Macomb Township).

Researchers discovered that they could detect a coronavirus outbreak in untreated sewage a week or two before health officials could identify a surge in cases.

“It’s important to have a way to predict when or where a virus outbreak may occur,” Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department, told reporters. “The data is going to be valuable, especially in an urban community.”

Officials from Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority have been partnering with MSU’s College of Engineering since November 2017 to study whether untreated sewage coming from homes and businesses could provide notice of virus outbreaks. Researchers found that testing untreated sewage was an effective way to detect and track infectious diseases in urine or feces.

Now, researchers are expanding their work to focus on COVID-19.

“The expansion of the partnership gives us targeted information that is critical in our battle against COVID-19,” Denise Fair, Detroit’s chief public health officer, said. “The expanded reach of this study allows us to pinpoint neighborhoods and ZIP codes where COVID-19 is trending upward, and we can use this information to reach out to residents and businesses in those areas to reinforce our messaging with regard to testing, quarantine protocols, contact tracing, and even assistance for businesses who need help in developing a plan to operate while keeping their employees safe during this pandemic.”

Now officials must determine the best way to use the information.

“By collaborating with the city and county public health officials, along with the regional wastewater services, we should make significant progress in determining the best approach for providing advance notice of emerging public health conditions,” Norton said. “Inter-agency collaboration is key to success.”

Irene Xagoraraki, associate professor environmental engineering and the leader of the research team, said early detection is an important front in the battle against COVID-19.

“Our approach has the potential to provide warnings earlier than traditional systems focused on clinical diagnostics — rapid or not — which are inherently limited to an after analysis of an outbreak,” Xagoraraki said. “Our approach goes above and beyond simple surveillance of wastewater.”

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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