DENVER (KDVR) — Denver has started a new pilot program testing wastewater at specific locations across the city for signs of COVID-19. 

In March, Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment began collecting samples from the raw sewage at two elementary schools. Samples are taken twice per week and tested at the state lab for COVID. 

“Wastewater testing is not new. We were using it throughout the course of the pandemic but it was happening at the state level,” Courtney Ronner, Denver’s COVID-19 public information officer, said.

According to Ronner, Colorado health officials did their testing at wastewater facilities that contained mixtures of wastewater from multiple different areas. Denver’s program aims to focus on a few specific locations like schools, jails, shelters for those experiencing homelessness and living facilities for older adults.

“I think we all have to come to terms with COVID is not going away. It’s part of our daily lives like flu, RSV, other respiratory diseases, so this is just a part of learning how to manage this better,” Ronner said. 

Detecting COVID before symptoms emerge

DDPHE said just because it is testing at a certain location does not mean the risk of disease or disease transmission is higher there. Ronner said in order to get the data they want, they need to test wastewater from places where the same people are likely to use the bathroom each day.  

“It wouldn’t make sense for us to test at a bar or a restaurant because the level of people going in and out of those facilities really varies,” she said.

DDPHE hopes the results will help city leaders better understand both the testing process and COVID-19. 

“We’re really just using this to really drill down our procedures, look at the data,” Ronner said. 

Additionally, the program could help pave the way for regular wastewater monitoring of other diseases. 

“Wastewater is a leading indicator for looking at disease transmission, so a lot of the diseases, like respiratory diseases and polio, you can actually test in waste,” Ronner said. “A lot of diseases you can test for through a blood draw or a swab shows up in wastewater … we can detect COVID in wastewater before people start showing symptoms.”

DDPHE plans on taking samples through June 2023.