FARGO — A team of North Dakota State University researchers and students are collecting and testing wastewater samples daily in hopes it could indicate when COVID-19 cases are increasing in cities and smaller towns across the state.
The project started in mid-July, and professors Wei Lin of the civil and environmental engineering department and John McEvoy of the microbiological sciences department have seen samples taken at wastewater treatment plants in Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks pretty much match what clinical testing is finding.
In other words, the numbers in the wastewater are up substantially since they started the effort in July and August — especially in the past few weeks.
Across the river in Moorhead, Wastewater Plant Manager Andy Bradshaw said they are collecting samples and sending them to the University of Minnesota Duluth, but so far the state's program is not being used as "tool" to indicate where virus outbreaks might be occurring. He said they are working with the Minnesota Department of Health, but no results on UMD's study have been released to the public.
Lin said humans shed the virus through fecal waste after about three days of contracting the virus, whether they have symptoms or not.
Before the wastewater is treated, a piece of equipment that has been in short supply grabs a sample from the wastewater plant, and it's then tested at the microbiology lab at NDSU.
Results are shared with the North Dakota Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality as another public health tool in tracking the virus.
While it's been used in bigger cities since July, McEvoy said they are continuing to add other cities and smaller towns across the state, including West Fargo and Casselton.
Waiting for the equipment to collect samples has been the reason for the delay in some communities, McEvoy said, as the smaller towns don't have the equipment that larger cities do.
The team wouldn't get into the details if numbers were down at all last week in the three big cities, but they definitely have seen a large increase in the past few weeks.
McEvoy, who believes the virus isn't going away anytime soon, said what will likely be the real benefit down the road is when samples could foretell an outbreak in some cities.
Health professionals could then direct resources to areas of the state where trends are going the wrong way, he said.
The wastewater surveillance technique could even track the virus to a more specific area of a town or building by going into manholes and collecting samples.
The NDSU team did that in recent months when they took manhole samples around the NDSU campus, dormitories and Greek Life houses.
Lin said when the campus was tested, the numbers were higher than the city average.
Lin said the technique isn't new, as it has been used in Europe, as well as in the U.S. to track other diseases such as polio.
It's still a learning period to fit all the processes together, Lin and McEvoy said.
"This is research that affects real people's lives and is in the real world," Lin said, rather than some of the hypothetical situations that research projects involve.
After all, NDSU is a state university, so if his work helps the state he believes it's appropriate.
Garrett Levin, a senior studying microbiology, agreed that it's a valuable tool for the state and called it "exciting" to be a part of the project. The lifelong West Fargo resident said it has encouraged him to pursue his passion in microbiology and enter graduate school.
McEvoy said it's also been a pleasure to have the departments from two different areas of the university work together on a project.