Wastewater testing

Researchers are tracking COVID-19 levels through toilet, shower and sink water.

Dr. Schuyler (Sky) Pike runs the Shimadzu Core Laboratory, responsible for all the wastewater testing on campus. Photo by: Cassidy Jessup | Multimedia Editor

Wastewater samples are being taken all over the state of Michigan to be tested for traces of COVID-19. 

The testing is being conducted by the Shimadzu Core Laboratory at Ferris. There are 20 labs in the state of Michigan, with testing being done in 56 of the state’s 83 counties. The project is overseen by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. 

We work with a network of labs across Michigan led by the Rose Lab of Michigan State University,” Dr. Sky Pike, director of the Shimadzu Core Laboratory, said. “Insights gleaned so far indicate that the correlation between the wastewater signal and the number of people positive for SARS-CoV-2 depends on several factors, including whether infected persons are high or low shedders of the virus in their feces, the stage of infection, the types of SARS-CoV-2 variants with which people are infected, the type of sampling technique and the dilution from other non-feces components of the wastewater.” 

When the wastewater is tested, researchers can identify traces of COVID-19 in the water. The amount of COVID-19 within the water can be used to determine how high or low of an infection rate a specific area has. Multiple factors can contribute to how much of the virus a person with COVID-19 can shed, so there is not an exact amount of COVID-19 that a single person sheds.

The results are then communicated with Michigan’s DHHS and EGLE, as well as local departments around Big Rapids. Michigan’s DHHS and EGLE compare the results with those from other areas of the state. Local departments use the results to encourage areas with high traces of COVID-19 in the wastewater to get tested. 

While the results are sent to various state departments, they are not always communicated to the public in an efficient way. The COVID-19 dashboard for the state of Michigan contained the data from all the testing locations across the state. The data from Ferris’ testing locations consisted of data from Nov 2020 to March 2021. 

This month, the Torch filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the wastewater testing results completed at Ferris from April 2021 to the present. After filing the request, the testing results requested were published on the dashboard. It is unclear why the data had not been published to the public sooner.

“Residents of testing locations are notified when samples indicate a long-sustained increase or a long period of high signal of SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater,” Dr. Pike said. “When this occurs, residents are notified and strongly encouraged to get tested… If we see a long-sustained increase or a long period of high signal of SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater, then there is concern the virus is present and could spread.” 

Throughout the semester, three residence halls have received notices of high traces of COVID-19. According to Gheretta Harris, the Associate Vice President of Ferris’ Campus Auxiliary Services, Hallisy Hall and Puterbaugh Hall received notices in mid-September. Bond Hall received a notice in early October. 

Various locations on and off campus are tested. All the campus dorms and apartments undergo wastewater testing. The Oakwood, Venlo and Tioga Parks apartment complexes also undergo testing. While focused in Big Rapids, testing is also conducted for locations in Reed City, Cadillac, Lake City, Grayling and Ludington. 

The testing in Big Rapids is led by Dr. Beth Zimmer, Dr. Clifton Franklund and Dr. Pike. There is also a full-time technician and 10 student employees who help process samples and collect data. 

Other universities around the state are participating in the testing of wastewater. Central Michigan University, Hope College, Lake Superior State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Northern Michigan University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University are also doing wastewater testing on their campuses and surrounding areas. 

Wastewater testing to detect traces of viruses is a relatively new practice. It has been used in the last decade to detect polio, norovirus and hepatitis A. Since the practice is so new, scientists are still studying the results and how they can be precisely used in public health. 

Results for the wastewater testing completed by Ferris and other universities are being compiled into one dashboard by the State of Michigan. The dashboard can be accessed at https://gisportal.state.mi.us/portal/apps/insights/index.html#/view/52bbb104ed574887918f990af9f3debe