By Beth Lawrence
Thanks to a bit of legwork on the part of a Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority board member, Jackson County is set to participate in a pilot study to trace COVID-19 spread.
In May TWSA’s board heard a presentation from Mathematica, a data tracking group that works with governments, about the process of testing wastewater to determine COVID-19 prevalence in communities.
The implications so intrigued board member Ron Mau, who also is a county commissioner, that he began to look for funding, finding a grant from Dogwood Health Trust to join a four-week pilot study conducted by a Wisconsin university.
The Jackson County Department of Public Health joined the effort to receive and administer grant funds and obtain test results.
TWSA will collect and ship wastewater samples.
“That includes two tests per week at our wastewater treatment plant #1 that are collected per the lab’s guidelines and then shipped to a lab at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences,” TWSA Director Daniel Manring said.
Sampling kits were sent to TWSA last week and collection began Tuesday.
Participation in the study will be easy for TWSA because it already collects wastewater specimens for testing.
Samples will be gathered Mondays and Tuesdays and overnighted to the university’s lab. Researchers will test Jackson County’s specimens on Wednesdays for the next four weeks.
“This is pretty neat timing because we may see results from before WCU students arrive until after over the next few weeks,” Manring said.
The distinction might be important because an influx of students changes the county’s demographics.
Mathematica will collect the data, publish it to a dashboard and make it available to the health department, which retains ownership.
“This information will provide a snapshot of the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community of Jackson County that are on TWSA water and sewer service,” Health Director Shelly Carraway said. “It will be helpful in comparing to the prevalence we are seeing by our testing relative to the percentage of residents that are on TWSA services. This will not be a direct correlation but will be a broad snapshot for consideration.”
The data could allow the health department to coordinate mass testing if there appears to be a large gap between the number of COVID-19 human tests and the amount of virus that shows up in sewage.
There are some drawbacks to the study.
“Unfortunately, the collection site is at the wastewater plant and will not pinpoint the areas/neighborhoods on the prevalence of COVID-19,” Carraway said. “It is a collection of all people on TWSA systems. When I asked the question about pinpointing particular areas or sites, such as long-term care facilities or even potentially Western Carolina University, it was said to be cost prohibitive to establish specific collection sites to that level of detail.”
A second disadvantage is the study will only focus on TWSA customers. Jackson County still has a large portion of population on private septic systems.
Even with drawbacks, Carraway believes the study is beneficial because it is another tool the health department can use to determine the spread of illness and to make public health decisions.
Human testing for the virus is “a crucial tool” to combat the spread of COVID-19, but it can be hampered by shortages in test kits, increased demand for tests from hot spots and large outbreaks leading to increased need for personnel and delays in test results, Carraway said.
“This wastewater testing has several valuable insights,” Carraway said. “For this four-week project, it gives a broad picture of the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community – regardless of the number of residents with symptoms. It could provide early warning if we started to see a spike in another wave of infections. It could guide policy decisions such as easing up or clamping down on restrictions in our county.”
The county could also participate in a statewide study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill if it can secure funding.