Researchers head to wastewater plant in Ontario for clues about virus

Jacobs Engineering technician Sam Jeffryes talks about a testing program sponsored by Oregon State University that may help local health officials detect Covid before the infection reaches epidemic levels. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – A new Covid testing program sponsored by Oregon State University may help cities and health officials detect a Covid outbreak before cases of the infection reach epidemic levels.

The Coronavirus Sewer Surveillance program will soon extend to cities across the state, including Ontario, because of a $1.2 million grant from the Oregon Health Authority.

The two-year program will eventually include 43 treatment plants around Oregon that serve more than 6,000 people each and is seen by officials as a key tool to measuring the prevalence of the disease within a city.

“What it can do, and it has been shown around the country and the world, is it can detect an outbreak before it is really found through traditional means. Part of the reason it can be detected early is when you sample wastewater, you’re sampling everyone in the community, including people who don’t feel sick,” said Christine Kelly, a professor at OSU’s College of Engineering.

Kelly said the testing agenda complements other measures a city may use to fight a Covid outbreak.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said Ontario will join the program within the next few weeks.

“The data they gather here may be helpful for other places of the state so, in a sense, we are sort of paying it forward,” said Brown.

OSU kicked off the program in May in Bend. The program then expanded over the summer to include Corvallis, Newport, Boardman and Hermiston.

In Bend, for example, researchers sampled wastewater over a two-week period in May and June and found the city was largely free of Covid genetic material.

In late July, though, testing began to show signals of Covid.

Kelly said OSU scientists also applied the testing schedule over two weeks recently in Hermiston and Boardman in conjunction with a door-to-door nasal swab analysis.

“Essentially what our results showed was they had a pretty high Covid signal in the wastewater, kind of the highest we’d measured so far and it was not declining over those two weeks,” said Kelly.

At the same time in July, the Covid positive test rate in Umatilla County ranged from 18.9% to 21.6%. The testing program will search for the genetic material – the “RNA backbone of the virus.”

RNA is essentially a molecule that is the “brain” of a gene and it plays a key role in coding, decoding and regulation of a specific gene.  The testing protocol “stabilizes the RNA” said Kelly.

Kelly said there is no evidence Covid remains infectious in wastewater. Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said she guessed the wastewater testing program for Ontario will show a high frequency of genetic evidence of Covid.

“Something like that would probably, my guess, come back to tell us probably 15% of our community has or had an active infection. Having that information is interesting but what will we do about it?” said Poe.

Poe said with a 35.2% weekly positive rate in Malheur County “I can guarantee you we have cases we are not catching,” said Poe

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have six or seven thousand cases right now,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.

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