Utah has a secret weapon for spotting COVID-19 outbreaks before they happen. And no, it’s not a crystal ball — it’s your poop.
Most COVID-19 tests are taken after a person has started showing symptoms or been exposed. But scientists in Utah are testing our wastewater to catch outbreaks before they even happen.
Human waste is a stinky, yet effective tool for measuring outbreaks.
The wastewater is collected from homes, businesses, dorms and restaurants around the city of Provo through the wastewater collection system. Anything that goes down the drain or down the toilet ends up going through the water treatment plant.
The wastewater then goes through a series of screens and is made into a composite sample, basically an “average” of the last 24 hours of wastewater.
“[Then we] shake it up really good,” says Andew Luymes, a lab tech at the Provo Wastewater Treatment Facility. He’s in the middle of sloshing a jug of wastewater. “[Next we] pour it into a bottle that we mark for covid, and then students have been coming to collect the sample and then test it.”
The samples go to labs around the state at places like BYU or the University of Utah, where it is then tested for coronavirus.
If the test results show a large or increasing amount of coronavirus in the composite water sample, it shows that there is a large or increasing amount of coronavirus in the population.
In September, Utah State University spotted a potential outbreak after finding rising amounts of coronavirus in the wastewater under the student dorms and ordered 300 students to quarantine.
The current data from the most recent tests shows increasing amounts of coronavirus in Provo, Salt Lake City, Ogden and more.
It’s a reminder to keep wearing a mask, avoiding groups and washing your hands.