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Researchers: Testing sewage could detect COVID-19 early

Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 5:23 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - For months now, cases of COVID-19 have been discovered by testing people. But new science shows it can also be found by testing their sewage.

On Tuesday, Dr. Steven Stack announced the state would begin a pilot project testing the wastewater at two different Kentucky prisons.

“It enables us to monitor a population that is confined in an area without having to test them, unless we see a warning sign in the waste water,” Dr. Stack said.

But those tests could also help stop outbreaks before they happen.

There have been several studies showing that the virus can be detected in raw sewage more than a week before the people involved show symptoms.

“Even if you aren’t showing any symptoms you do have the coronavirus RNA inside of you,” said COVID-19 researcher Dr. Shakira Hobbs. “And when you shed that through your stool then RNA will be shared as well. So that could be an early detection.”

Dr. Hobbs is working with a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky who are studying how long COVID-19 can survive in certain conditions.

“There’s not a lot of study on how it degrades in wastewater,” Dr. Hobbs said. “And how it will behave in natural settings.”

She says collecting that waste can give people an idea of how much coronavirus is present in an enclosed community, such as a prison, a homeless shelter, a nursing home, or even a college dorm.

“We tap into their manhole. We get their wastewater that’s coming out,” Dr. Hobbs said. “And depending on the concentration we can suggest that hey, there needs to be testing here.”

The University of Tennessee has said they plan to test wastewater coming out of buildings across campus.

Spokespeople for UK, EKU, and Georgetown College have all told WKYT they’ve discussed wastewater testing. The city of Lexington has had talks about it but no concrete plans.

But soon, it could become more common. On Monday the CDC initiated the National Wastewater Surveillance System. They’re developing a portal for local health departments to submit wastewater testing data into a national database.

Copyright 2020 WKYT. All rights reserved.

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