Wastewater Surveillance Effective in Efforts to Detect COVID on College Campuses

May. 17, 2021

Wastewater monitoring is a promising tool for COVID-19 surveillance, according to a new paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Public Health. Researchers from the University of Rochester co-led this study, which synthesizes initial wastewater surveillance efforts at 25 colleges and universities from across the country, including St. John Fisher College. Wastewater monitoring helped these colleges detect, contain and prevent wider spread of COVID infection and the findings could provide a blueprint for other institutions – like nursing homes, workplaces, and jails – and inform community efforts to monitor for COVID and other infectious diseases.     

People infected with COVID may shed the virus in their feces even if they have no symptoms. Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not known to survive long in wastewater, genetic material from the virus can be detected in sewage for many days. Therefore, measuring the amount of this material in sewage can provide an early indicator of infection trends in the population.

State- and national-level systems for wastewater surveillance at municipal wastewater treatment plants are rapidly developing. Many municipalities in New York have monitored their wastewater. Monroe County conducted sampling between July and December 2020 at Frank E. Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Plant. Meanwhile, colleges and universities across the country have been integrating wastewater surveillance into their ongoing efforts to manage COVID on their campuses, including St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The study of colleges’ experiences with wastewater monitoring was co-led by Katrina Smith Korfmacher, Ph.D., professor and director of the Community Engagement Core of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Sasha Harris-Lovett, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow and external relations specialist for the Berkeley Water Center, at the University of California Berkeley. Todd Camenisch, Ph.D., professor and chair at Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College, was a co-author.

The paper draws on the efforts of more than two dozen colleges in states across the country to characterize, compare and identify lessons learned during the fall 2020 academic period. The study found a wide variety of approaches have been developed, ranging from sampling once a week to daily, and from one to over 50 sites on campus. These differences were shaped by institutions’ financial and technical resources, physical characteristics of their campus infrastructure and decision support needs.

Despite these differences, all of the case study colleges found value in sampling wastewater and planned to continue through spring 2021 to help inform efforts to control COVID on campus. For example, in August 2020, the University of Arizona announced it had detected SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater from a student dormitory. Follow up testing identified two asymptomatic infected students, who were transferred to an isolation facility, potentially preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus. Their experiences emphasized the need for multidisciplinary collaboration, iterative adaptation based on local experience, and sharing information between campuses. Based on these insights, the authors propose a framework for design, implementation and evaluation of campus wastewater surveillance systems that can help other colleges plan wastewater surveillance programs for the long run.

“I was struck by the key role of collaboration in all of these efforts. In most places, the initial focus was on the technical challenges, sensitivity of methods and implementing the monitoring program,” said Korfmacher. “At the end of the day, however, the ability to communicate, interpret and use the resulting information turned out to require strong, ongoing partnerships between diverse stakeholders. We really believe that this approach can promote equity in COVID-19 surveillance.”

In an effort to further these partnerships in the Rochester region, Korfmacher convened a Monroe County Wastewater Surveillance Working Group that has been meeting since July 2020 to learn from the sampling experiences of local colleges, including St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Institute of Technology, Monroe County’s Frank E. Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Plant, and others in the region. The group meets weekly and engages over 30 members from county and state government agencies, local colleges and private sector companies.

As colleges and universities look toward long-term surveillance for COVID, this paper provides timely insight into essential considerations for design, cost-effectiveness and sustainability. Although approaches are still evolving, these initial efforts make a strong case for the potential of wastewater surveillance to play a key role in affordable, long-term monitoring for COVID-19 – and other future diseases – on not only colleges campuses, but at other kinds of institutions and in communities.