Macomb County’s effort to engage in studying human waste in sewer systems for evidence of coronavirus could prove fruitful as the county continues to stand as a “hot spot” for Covid-19 in Michigan.
The county Public Works Office, relying on federal anti-virus funds, launched a pilot project in May to examine sewage samples from seven locations in Clinton Township, an area where much of Macomb’s wastewater converges. Those samples are regularly sent to labs for testing.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) could provide a boost to this project. The CDC has announced it will begin working with state and local governments to conduct testing of sewage for the coronavirus. That follows research that shows sewage samples provide an unmistakable, big- picture of Covid-19 spread in local communities.
According to Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, studies have shown that testing of sewage samples could detect the presence of the virus in communities two weeks before some infected residents may develop symptoms, or while they await the results of their own test to determine whether they have Covid.
“Our department is an enthusiastic partner with the Macomb County Health Department and hospitals. This is another tool to assist them in getting ahead of where the spread of the coronavirus is at,” Miller said in a press release.
The latest statewide information compiled by Bridge Magazine shows that Macomb is one of four counties, out of 83 in Michigan, with extraordinarily high rates of the spreading virus. Macomb has a positive rate of 7.4 percent for each Covid test taken among the public.
Scientific American magazine recently reported that counties and municipalities across the U.S. are now sampling sewage collected from 400 waste treatment plants, which represents an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s population. The collected data allows public health professionals to track patterns and weaknesses in the health care system.
“The big unknown at the moment, because there is still very limited testing going on in (the U.S.), is: No one has a clue how many people are infected and asymptomatic. Not a clue,” Ian Pepper, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona, who studies pathogens in municipal sewage, told Scientific American.
Conducting existing diagnostic tests on an entire population is impractical, and such tests are not equitably distributed. However, everyone uses the bathroom. Thus, wastewater sampling allows for testing for the coronavirus’s presence in millions of people all at once, regardless of their socioeconomic status or access to health care.