Wastewater study in Houston area helps identify COVID-19 outbreaks

The study is also tracking flu cases

HOUSTON – When you think of wastewater treatment plants, you may not think of medical research. But weekly water samples from 39 different Houston area treatment plants are now helping in the fight against the coronavirus.

“Everyone goes to the bathroom and no one thinks about where that goes we just go and collect it and then we have a picture,” said Dr. Lauren Stadler, lead scientist on the wastewater project and an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

“It can capture an entire community’s presence of the virus or entire community’s level of the virus,” said Dr. Anthony Maresso, from Baylor College of Medicine TAILOR LABS, which helped start this project.

For the past five months, the Houston Health Department along with Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University researchers have been studying the levels of coronavirus in wastewater samples.

“It’s more unbiased because it’s sampling everybody and not just the people that show up at the testing sites,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the city of Houston.

Researchers compare the wastewater data to the daily positivity rates and then monitor trends across Houston. They can also use it to predict any increase in possible cases.

“The key discovery with this project was that the wastewater signal seems to be ahead of the nasal testing data,” Dr. Maresso said.

“And if you think about controlling an outbreak one to two weeks is very precious important time for being able to detect changes and infection burdens in communities,” Dr. Stadler said.

City of Houston health officials take this information and pinpoint exactly where to send more resources and strike teams if there is an upward trend.

“They do outreach, they do door hangers, they do testing, education and really saturate that area so that area gets special attention in hopes we can contain it,” Dr. Hopkins said.

Health officials said overall the Houston area numbers are going down, but in southwest Houston, the numbers are slightly higher.

Health officials are now using the study to also track the flu virus, which will help areas dealing with a higher number of coronavirus cases prevent a flu outbreak.