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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Opinion: Challenges Quantifying COVID-19 Cases Using Wastewater

Opinion: Challenges Quantifying COVID-19 Cases Using Wastewater

Editor's Note: The views expressed in this post are the sole opinion of the author and not those of WaterOperator.org, our sponsors, or the University of Illinois.

In the May 5, 2020 edition of the WaterOperator.org newsletter, we highlighted ongoing research that uses wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Especially in locations where no confirmed cases have been identified, any samples positive for SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA implies that there are people infected in that community excreting it. For that purpose, wastewater monitoring shows real promise as an approach to early detection. By monitoring wastewater influent, scientists hope we can develop an advanced warning system for outbreaks.

There has been significant buzz about using wastewater to quantify the actual number of people infected within a given service area, but there are some issues with quantifying cases I want to discuss. In our newsletter we highlighted MIT research aiming to quantify the number of infected from a large area in Massachusetts. In that article, the researchers point to concerns about meeting the litmus test of sound science.

The wastewater system they studied had 450 confirmed cases at the time of sampling. Results from this monitoring suggested the number of people infected could be much higher. They estimated somewhere between 2,300 and 115,000 infected people. A range this wide does little to help planners or health officials prepare for what might be coming during a pandemic.

Quantifying the number of people infected with COVID-19 using wastewater samples requires a much more comprehensive data set that we cannot gather today in any cost effective way. Here are a few of the problems I see in quantifying the positive COVID-19 population within a given wastewater system:

  • Not everyone excretes the viral RNA:
    A recent study published March 30 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that some COVID-19 patients exhibit gastrointestinal symptoms, with those patients more likely to produce a positive stool test. In other words, COVID-19 positive patients may not have ANY viral RNA in their stool. How do we identify those people?
  • Wastewater varies throughout the day and throughout the week:
    The influent coming through a plant varies based on the discharges from the users. A lot of variables can affect wastewater characteristics at the specific time a sample is collected. The time of day, time of week, and even the time of year can affect the flow into a plant depending on the types of users in the system.
  • Every system has a variety of sources for their wastewater:
    What percentage of the wastewater is residential? Are there commercial or industrial facilities that are discharging to the community system? If so, how much, and what types of businesses? In some communities, commercial and industrial users could make up a significant portion of the wastewater treated. In a rural area, the regional hospital may be in a smaller community making it a significant source and contributor. Other communities could be almost completely residential.
  • Sampling time and frequency can skew the results:
    Sampling time matters, as do the number of samples collected. How do we decide what is representative? Once an hour? Once a day? Sampling may need to be continuous to really understand the variability.
  • Wastewater collection systems leak:
    Leaking can occur both ways. Some wastewater leaks into the environment through the collection system while, at other times, a high groundwater table may be leaking groundwater into the collection system. I looked at approximately 50 smaller systems in Illinois to compare the amount of wastewater discharge to the amount of groundwater they withdraw from drinking water wells. (You would expect the amount withdrawn from wells to be more than that treated at the wastewater plant because of consumptive use.) In many cases systems were treating more wastewater than the raw water being used for their community supply and, in some cases, it was 2-3 times a much. This would be significant factor when using any volumetric approach to evaluating COVID-19 sampling results.
  • We have no benchmark to compare results:
    Without having data for a number of communities where the total number of residents with active COVID-19 infection is known, there is no way to validate assumptions and calibrate estimates built into the method. This would not be possible without a consensus understanding about the rate of asymptomatic cases.

If researchers must accept such a high degree of uncertainty, how can this method ever be accurate or useful? Many factors would have to be considered to quantify the number of positive cases for a given community and these would be unique to the individual system. That said, these are not likely new considerations for the talented researchers working on this effort. 

In the future I hope an approach to accurately quantify an infected population using wastewater-based epidemiology becomes a reality. It would be a tremendous asset. In the meantime, however, I believe our focus should be on evaluating the pitfalls mentioned above and working toward technologies/protocols needed within a wastewater plant to reduce uncertainty and move us closer to our common goal of protecting public health.

ISAWWA COVID-19 Utility Impact Survey

ISAWWA COVID-19 Utility Impact Survey

To assess management approaches and concerns utilities have adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association (ISAWWA) released a utility survey to their membership via email on April 3, 2020. Available for one week, 141 members responded with 139 of these respondents representing public water or wastewater systems. Eleven survey questions focused on operational, managerial, and financial changes implemented in response to the pandemic as well as system concerns and needs moving forward. Three additional questions gathered information on utility demographics. Results from the survey can be found in the report: COVID-19 Impact on Utilities. In this blog we will highlight some of the key findings below.

The report indicates that the primary concerns for Illinois utilities focus on maintaining staff health, staff availability, and the continuity of operations. To respond to the pandemic, many systems have implemented staff scheduling changes, split shifts, and the reduction of staffing hours. The survey report goes on to note how other changes are being implemented and how those changes are impacting operations. Regarding revenue, many systems believe it is still too early to understand the full financial impact of the pandemic and have not begun planning for worst-case scenarios. Of those who have noticed changes in revenue, few have witnessed a positive impact on finances. The majority note that they are experiencing lowered commercial water use, an increase in non-payments, cuts to capital projects, or hiring freezes. Emergency response plans offer an effective way to mitigate many pandemic challenges, however the survey notes that only 56% of respondents are developing plans.

Additional questions from the report elucidate the training needs identified by respondents and how utilities are complying with an order by the Illinois Commerce Commission to discontinue water shutoffs.

Of notable interest to small systems, the report includes a section to highlight how system size impacts pandemic response and concerns. To develop these size related trends, the ISAWWA asked respondents whether they represented a small system serving a population of 5,000 or fewer, a medium system serving between 5,001 to 50,000, or a large system serving greater than 50,001. The report reflects that small systems generally have less capacity to respond to the pandemic likely as a result of fewer employees, fewer resources, and the use of a single staff member to maintain a large portion of the system. On the other end, though large systems may have a greater capacity to address the pandemic, they must also overcome the challenges that result from managing a greater number of staff members. Small systems may have fewer challenges related to staff management, however they must also plan for absenteeism more carefully.

For a more detailed review of the survey results, we recommend reviewing the report for yourself. Reading utility responses, concerns, and approaches to managing the virus may assist your system in planning for future challenges and concerns. Visit our web page COVID-19 Resources for Water Systems to find clear and concise information, tools, and resources to make managing these pandemic challenges a little easier.