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Wastewater testing traces COVID-19 to source, allows for targeted testing at OSU

Oregon State University is using the information to stop potential outbreaks on campus.

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Researchers are turning more and more to the sampling of human waste to track the COVID-19 virus. Oregon State University is using the information to stop potential outbreaks on campus.

It might not be the most pleasant job, but what OSU staffers are doing is critical to keeping students and faculty safe. They're collecting, then testing, the wastewater that flows through the campus sewer system in an effort to track COVID-19.

"By testing the wastewater we can identify areas on campus where people are shedding the virus," said Tyler Radniecki, associate professor of environmental engineering at the university.

With every flush of feces of an infected person, an inactive form of the virus enters the system.

"Infected individuals will shed the COVID-19 virus into the wastewater and they will do this whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic," explained Radniecki.

Recent tests found moderate levels of the virus in the outflows from both an on-campus residence hall and an off-campus student apartment building. In response, the school asked the students living in those buildings to either take a COVID test or self quarantine.

Freshman Sophia Bouck chose to get tested. "I was kind of worried because wastewater probably means somebody's got it in the building and I'm living in the building pretty much a lot of the time," she said.

The university tested more than 300 people. All those tests came back negative. That could mean those infected either did not get tested or were simply visiting the residences when they shed the virus.

Either way, any potential outbreak was stopped.

"It's really critical to identify infections quickly before they can spread to other individuals because to date the large majority of people who are infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic," said Radniecki.

The university is also expanding its efforts off-campus. It's been testing the wastewater from municipal treatment plants in Corvallis, Newport and Bend to track any potential upticks.

"One of the concerns was spikes in the community as students return and to date, while we do see COVID-19 markers in the wastewater, they have not spiked in correlation to the return of the students," said Radniecki.

Students we spoke with said they are doing everything they can to stay safe so they can stay on campus. And if that means the monitoring of their waste, they're all for it.

"Yeah, everyone is taking the precautions that they need to," said Bouck.

Oregon State University's wastewater surveillance program is getting a lot of attention. The administration is already in talks with several foundations and agencies to expand this program nationwide. 

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