Feces, wastewater tests prevent corona outbreak in U of Arizona dorms

By diagnosing two individuals in the dorms as asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, the university prevented a potentially serious outbreak.

The University of Arizona (UofA). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The University of Arizona (UofA).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Medical officials at the University of Arizona on Thursday successfully caught a coronavirus outbreak in its dorms before it could start by analyzing stool in the sewage system, The Washington Post reported.
Ahead of move-in day, which would see 5,000 people move into the dorms ahead of classes, the university routinely tested over 300 people who live and work in its dorms by looking for traces of coronavirus in sewage wastewater.
After one person tested positive, the university began testing everyone else, and was able to diagnose two asymptomatic cases. The two carriers were immediately sent into quarantine, preventing a potential outbreak that could have spread throughout the dorms.
According to Richard Carmona, a former US surgeon general who is in charge of the university's reentry task force, had the asymptomatic carriers not been diagnosed as quickly as they were, they would likely have begun spreading it, potentially sparking a major outbreak.
“With this early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters, and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” Carmona said in a press conference, according to the n Post.
“Think about if we had missed it – if we had waited until they became symptomatic, and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period – how many other people would have been infected?”
The announcement comes as many institutions are considering testing for coronavirus in wastewater and sewage systems. Other American universities are already doing it, such as the University of California at San Diego and Syracuse University. It is also being considered as a means of testing on a federal level in other countries. In Australia for example, the effort is being spearheaded by Kevin Thomas, director of University of Queensland’s Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, the Post reported.
In Thomas's opinion, the University of Arizona's success in preventing a potential outbreak is proof of the method's success.
“I really do think it’s a good demonstration of the technique and technology because all the researchers working in this space internationally have come to the conclusion that it is a very good early-warning system,” he told the paper.
UNIVERSITIES ARE not the only ones putting this method to use, however. Israel's Health Ministry has been using this method since April.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post at the time, Health Ministry environmental virology lab head Dr. Itay Bar-On explained that they had been monitoring toilet water, shower water, laundry machines and other wastewater, and found it to be an effective means of testing in specific locations.
“If you quarantine a region and then test the sewage in intervals [and] get a decrease of the virus in the sewage, you can say there is a decrease in sickness and use it as a parameter to take the closure off,” he explained.
This reflects one of the big advantages of this method: Tests can show the rate of infection, which can indicate if a measure to contain the outbreak is successful. And this is something U of A is well aware of.
“The approach can also be used to help determine if an intervention is working to reduce the transmission of the virus,” Ian Pepper, the university's Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center director, said in a statement back in April.
Testing wastewater could also help limit the spread of an outbreak in other ways. A study from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in collaboration with other institutions worldwide, stated that wastewater itself could be a potential vector of infection, as can fruits and vegetables irrigated with improperly disinfected wastewater.
But while the University of Arizona's outbreak was averted before it could happen, it isn't optimistic that they can fully prevent cases from going up.
“It’s inevitable” that numbers will go up, university president Robert C. Robbins said at a press conference, according to The Washington Post.
“The issue is going to be: Can we handle the steady flow of cases, or do we get a big spike in cases that overwhelms our ability to isolate and continue to test?”
However, Thomas thinks that wastewater tests can be an effective means of preventing further spread of the virus in universities.
“The proof is there that it works, and it does seem to be a very sensitive approach,” he told the  Post.
“I think it’s a proactive way of trying to manage the potential for infection on campus.”
Maayan Hoffman and Alex Winston contributed to this report.