UW receives $800K grant to test COVID-19 shed into Wyoming's wastewater - Casper, WY Oil City News
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UW receives $800K grant to test COVID-19 shed into Wyoming’s wastewater

Solids are removed from wastewater in a clarifying tank on Thursday, July 20, 2017 at the Sam H. Hobbs Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility in Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — A University of Wyoming research team has received an $800,000 grant from the Wyoming Department of Health “to test effluent from Wyoming communities for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” UW said on Monday, Oct. 26.

The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory (WPHL) has been working with locations across the state to test for the prevalence of COVID-19 in wastewater. The “Wyoming COVID-19 Wastewater Monitor” uses data from testing at these locations to model the potential prevalence of COVID-19 in different communities.

UW says that testing wastewater “could show disease trends and even predict outbreaks days before they can be identified by other types of testing.”

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Bledar Bisha, an associate professor in UW’s Department of Animal Science and Sarah Collins, an assistant professor in UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, will collaborate on UW’s effort to test wastewater samples “from up to 100 sites several times a week once the project is running.”

“More than 7,000 samples, over the course of one year, will be tested in Bisha’s laboratory in animal science and half in the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory (WPHL) in Cheyenne,” UW says.

Alexys McGuire, a graduate student at UW, will lead the project with assistance from undergraduate students and a laboratory technician, according to UW.

“The research group is working closely with public health officials, especially Noah Hull and Wanda Manley at WPHL, and will plan to share the COVID-19 data,” UW says. “Samples will be taken before the influent enters a wastewater treatment facility.”

“McGuire’s group will use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to detect gene sequences unique to the virus.”

The COVID-19 virus tends to spread via larger droplets when individuals are in close contact through breathing, talking or sneezing, Bisha explained to UW. However, “evidence has mounted supporting airborne transmission via aerosols,” UW adds.

While COVID-19 is generally thought of as a respiratory illness, Bisha explains that the virus can also be present in the gastrointestinal tract and that people can shed the virus through their feces.

“So, that’s why we look in wastewater,” Bisha said in the release. “But the interesting thing about looking at wastewater is that you’re likely to catch both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, because the disease is transmitted by those who are asymptomatic but, sometimes, clinical testing won’t pick up those cases.”

Testing wastewater can indicate trends in where COVID-19 is spiking in the state, though it cannot determine the exact number of cases in a community.

“The tool can’t be fully quantitative, but it’s fairly useful if you use it to assess trends,” Bisha said in the release. “Where this tool has been used in the past, it’s been possible to assess an outbreak at least a week before clinical cases started to appear.”

Testing wastewater was used to detect polio cases in the 1930s, according to UW. It has also been used to track the prevalence of diseases in developing countries.

“It’s proved to be an effective method to look at trends of infectious disease in the past — and not only infectious diseases, but even other unconventional applications, such as wastewater testing to look at opioid use in communities, for the benefit of public health,” Bisha told UW. “The best way to do this is to try to concentrate the viral nucleic acids, which in the case of this virus is RNA, not DNA.”

“You are extracting the target RNA that is indicative of the virus, and then you purify that and run the PCR, making many, many copies (millions), and you’re detecting them in real time.”

The PCR testing would not be impacted by mutations to the COVID-19 virus since it targets RNA.

“The genes are very, very important genes for survival, important for the attachment to the target cells, so they are not likely to mutate,” Bisha says.

The project is important both for research and as a means to help monitor the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to Bisha.

“We feel excited to provide yet another tool to monitor the prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 in our communities and help in the greater effort to curtail the outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2,” he said in the release.

The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:

What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.

If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.

Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.

For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: covid@cnchd.org

  • Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.