ASHTABULA -- In a new effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19, a network across Ohio is studying samples of wastewater looking for the presence of fragments from the virus that causes the new coronavirus.
In Ashtabula County, two wastewater treatment facilities are participating in the monitoring — Ashtabula and Conneaut.
“Twice a week, samples of untreated wastewater will be tested for COVID,” said Ashtabula City’s Health Commissioner Christine Hill. “It may give us a warning, a heads up.”
Hill said if fragments of the virus are discovered in either wastewater plant, the local health department will send out messages.
“We will warn area residents to watch out, remain vigilant in their efforts to social distance, wear face coverings and adhere to prevention efforts such as hand washing,” she said. “We will post warnings on Facebook, send out press releases, etc.”
Council President John Roskovics said he’s grateful the technology and the efforts of the Health Department and wastewater treatment plants.
“Any extra tool we have in fighting the spread of COVID is helpful,” he said. “As the disease continues to cause concerns it’s important that we rely on our health professionals for advice.”
City Manager Jim Timonere has repeatedly praised Hill and the Ashtabula City Health Department for its hard work during this crisis.
The increase of COVID-19 cases in communities is typically tracked by testing people with symptoms, but it’s an indicator that lags behind the actual spread of the disease. Because of this, there is a need to use early monitoring methods that estimate the disease’s impact on the broader community.
The Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are coordinating with the United States EPA in Cincinnati and the Ohio Water Resources Center at the Ohio State University on this monitoring study. The study includes sampling from several of Ohio’s municipal sewage and wastewater treatment systems to determine the presence of coronavirus ribonucleic acid fragments in wastewater, according to a joint press release from Health Departments in Ashtabula County.
Virus RNA fragments are present in the feces of people who are both symptomatic and not symptomatic. Emerging science suggests that the virus in infected individuals may be detected in wastewater about 3-7 days before there are increases in cases and or hospitalizations. Because scientists are still learning about the timing and rate of shedding of the virus RNA in feces of infected people, it is only appropriate to monitor and observe the trends of viral RNA detected in a community over time.
The data presented in the graphs on the coronavirus.ohio.gov website show the total number of RNA copies detected in the area from which the wastewater was collected. A significant increase in viral RNA over time is an indicator that cases may be increasing in the community.
The Health Departments of Ashtabula County will alert local hospitals, clinics, local physicians and congregate settings such as nursing homes and correctional institutions.
Health officials said is important to note that the wastewater monitoring program is looking for genetic remnants of the virus in raw wastewater as it first reaches the wastewater treatment plant before disinfection.
“This is another excellent tool to add to our COVID-19 response toolkit,” Hill said. “This can be added to other alerting systems already in use in Ohio such as, the Ohio Public Health Advisory System.”
The Ohio Public Health Advisory System, also found on coronavirus.ohio.gov, is a public health alert system that utilizes a color coded map of Ohio to assess the degree of the COVID -19 virus spread within a community.