How Colorado is watching wastewater to spot COVID variants

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — With another case of the omicron variant found in Colorado, the Problem Solvers wanted to get a better understanding of how the state is looking for it.

While the variants have been spotted through PCR samples for the positive patients so far, the state is also looking at our waste to track it down.

So far, the state found omicron in two different people who recently traveled to South Africa, but once the strain reaches the community, the state plans to find out through water.

“Essentially, the wastewater utilities are providing samples of the wastewater, which is the water from houses and buildings and includes feces,” said Rachel Jervis, CDPHE Foodborne and Waterborne Disease Programs. “They are submitting that laboratory to our partners at CSU and then we look for the RNA, the genetic material of COVID in that wastewater and then we look for the genetic markers of the variant.”

The state will not see these types of samples from every county. CDPHE said only 21 utility companies are participating right now.

The state says they are trying to get more people on board, but for now, it serves as a good partner for traditional PCR sampling.

“We see our wastewater monitoring program as a complement to our clinical surveillance. So, we really, from wastewater, don’t try to identify the individual. We use it to identify trends in a community. Now, in the future, we have plans to do building-level surveillance,” Jervis said.

They say they are looking to partner with more schools and state prisons. In the meantime, they have their hands full with omicron.

“You know, we were kind of in an informal race to see if we’d find this in people or wastewater first and this time, we found it in an individual first. But our lab is actively looking for omicron in wastewater, and we anticipate we will find it very soon,” Jervis said.

The state says the PCR and wastewater samples do not compete. Instead, they use the two to make sure data from both are aligning with what’s happening in the community.

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