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Our bodies shed COVID-19 virus days before we show symptoms. So, Virginia is testing wastewater

Researchers say our bodies shed the virus days before we show symptoms, leading to earlier detection than testing.
Credit: Alexandria Renew Enterprises
Alexandria Renew Enterprises is one of the 25 utilities collecting wastewater samples for the VDH to test for COVID.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Virginia is now looking for COVID cases in our poop...well samples collected from wastewater treatment centers.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) launched the initiative at 25 sites throughout the state in September, thanks to funding from the federal government.

One utility that's collecting weekly samples for the VDH is Alexandria Renew Enterprises.

Researchers said the samples will help them to identify COVID-19 in a community before it shows up in testing.

Dr. Marcia Degen, Technical Services Manager for the Office of Environmental Health Services at VDH, said that even if people aren't showing symptoms of COVID-19 if they have the virus, the genetic material will show up in their poop – up to six days before clinical cases are identified.

Right now, the goal is to track COVID-19 case trends throughout the state.

“We're trying to say, are they increasing? Are they decreasing? Are we just seeing a plateau?" Dr. Degen said. "And then being able to transfer that data to our health districts and the folks that are on the ground, so that they have some idea of what's happening in their community?”

RELATED: Omicron coronavirus variant found in 5 US states

Dr. Degen and Dr. Rekha Singh said that this type of screening has been around for 20 years, but the methods to track COVID-19 cases are different.

Each of the sites collects samples on their own and sends them to the VDH so the health department can accrue data and eventually start to predict trends and outbreaks.

“As the holiday season, it might be very helpful to see if we find a heavy load of viral load in the wastewater, we can inform our response team to target resources accordingly," Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Degen said the viral material found in sewage is not infective. She said the CDC has not found any cases of humans contracting COVID-19 from waste.

Next, she said they're working to be able to identify different variants in the samples, like Omicron, which they said should be ready by the start of 2022.

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