What the feces? Houston launches new wastewater monitoring program to help slow spread of COVID-19

HOUSTON – Mayor Sylvester Turner presented a new initiative Thursday that could serve as a faster method of containing COVID-19.

Since May, the Houston Health Department has monitored the wastewater at 38 treatment plants for the presence of the virus. Turner said people with COVID-19 shed the virus in their waste, even if they don’t have any symptoms.

The wastewater monitoring project is a collaboration between the Houston Health Department, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help develop an early warning system, allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to slow the spread of this disease, and important benefit offered by the project is the detection of a COVID-19 resurgence if it were to occur,” Turner said.

The sewage wastewater is collected at the treatment plan before its process, according to Dr. Lauren Hopkins, of the Houston Health Department. A sample is analyzed for COVID-19. The results come back as positive or negative for the presence of the virus.

In addition, a qualitative assessment can reveal how much, if the sample is positive for COVID-19.

“Clinical data is highly useful, but it’s limited by the people being tested at any given time, whereas the wastewater data provides insight of the virus for a snapshot in time for the entire population in Houston,” Hopkins said.

Coronavirus has been a deadly match for too many. More than 1,000 Houstonians have died. While about 15,000 Texans and over 200,000 people nationwide have died.

“This project ensures Houston can determine where the spread is hot spot is with data that can serve as another tool to identify disease, slow the spread and save lives,” Turner said.

After identifying hot spots, Houston plans to send out teams to those communities to educate and empower residents to get tested.

“This will give us that early warning that we may have otherwise missed,” said Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department.

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