Moorhead joining wastewater study aimed at finding coronavirus hot spots

Moorhead city wastewater manager Andy Bradshaw is hoping to help with a study of wastewater in the state by U of M researchers that could help determine the prevalence and spread of the virus in communities and regions across Minnesota. David Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD — Wastewater from Moorhead and other cities across Minnesota may provide a key to tracking down coronavirus hot spots in coming months.

The wastewater study, led by two doctors from University of Minnesota Medical School-Duluth campus, is just getting underway.

The director of Moorhead's wastewater plant, Andy Bradshaw, said he volunteered to provide samples for the emerging study to assist the effort to detect the prevalence of COVID-19 in wastewater. The plant serves both Moorhead and Dilworth.

The study is similar to other sampling that has been done across the nation to measure drug or even caffeine use in a community by examining the wastewater at plants, Bradshaw said.


The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency don't know how long the virus can survive in wastewater, he said, but the Duluth researchers expect the samples to provide answers.

Dr. Glenn Simmons Jr., who is leading the study along with Dr. Richard Melvin, said about 15 communities across the state so far have committed to joining in the U of M study.

He's hoping for wide participation from cities to track down hot spots or trends. Along with testing of individuals, Simmons said it could help public health officials redirect resources where needed.

"Testing is limited but this could complement the testing and, when the two are combined, provide a more accurate and useful measure across the state," Simmons said.

He hopes the initiative will ramp up in the coming two months with results starting to be available in the fall. He said samples will be monitored throughout the fall, possibly into the winter.

Simmons has done research in cancer and HIV virology and, that as a molecular biologist, he said this fits into his line of studies.

The idea for the initiative originated from the biology of viruses which is known to evacuate or shed genetic material from the body through wastewater once it has run its course, he said.


Bradshaw, who is also president of the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, said the 56 member cities or sanitary districts in the organization have the "technology, training and expertise to assist with this study" and plan to help the doctors.

"Our operators know how to handle wastewater materials and can provide the influential samples necessary," he said. "We want to do our part to ensure that the information necessary to combat this virus is brought to light."

Simmons said the wastewater is "a different ballgame" compared to drinking water.

With "significant confidence," the doctor said that current robust wastewater treatment processes keeps the coronavirus or any virus out of discharges and eventually drinking water.

However, another Minnesota group has provided funding to investigate if there are any quantities of the virus in drinking water supplies across the state. The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources approved funding in late April for a Twin Cities-based University of Minnesota team to start collecting samples from around the state.

The commission said there were some concerns about how septic systems, leaking sewers or possibly other pathways may affect groundwater with possible releases of the virus.

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