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Sewage Testing For COVID: Santa Clara County Gets Ahead of Slow National Response

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In the fight against COVID-19, wastewater may be one of the best tools we have to predict infection surges. Nearly 10 months into the pandemic, the U.S. is finally launching a program to support sewage testing for the virus.

Swab tests are only effective if people voluntarily get tested, but sewage can be monitored to detect changes in an area’s virus levels, only requiring people use the bathroom as usual. What seems nasty on the surface is actually a beautiful thing if it means we can predict harmful surges and adjust health guideline policies as needed. The method has been used in other countries for some time, but like so many other important measures in the national pandemic response, the U.S. has been slow to dig in.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced Monday that it is rolling out a National Wastewater Surveillance System that will provide centralized data submission and monitoring tools to support local health departments as they sift through our waste. In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and several other federal agencies, the CDC’s portal will be used to “ensure data comparability across jurisdictions.”

Some U.S. cities and counties have already begun analyzing wastewater, though the practice has not been effectively widespread or consistent. Some states like New York suspended sewage surveillance programs due to lack of equipment and resources. While the NWSS does not necessarily address the funding and equipment needs, it will establish standards and help localities interpret what they find. 

Santa Clara County and San Jose’s Environmental Services Department jumped ahead with a Stanford University partnership that will fund six months of research at four sewage plants. The effort is independent of the slow-moving CDC rollout, but the county will eventually benefit from the national portal, or it could be seen as the federal government benefiting from the county’s efforts.

Either way, the more information we have at our disposal (pun intended), the more prepared we are to face the challenges of the pandemic on a policy level.


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.