How COVID-19 wastewater research can protect the elderly and vulnerable

Newswise — Wastewater detection of COVID-19 is being used across the US to prevent spread of COVID-19  in college dormitories-now experts are figuring how to use this technology to help another population that lives together in close conditions but at a much greater risk: the elderly residents of nursing homes.  

At the University of Virginia, Lisa Colosi-Peterson, an associate professor of engineering systems and environment at the UVA School of Engineering and Amy Mathers, an associate director of clinical microbiology at the UVA School of Medicine came together early in the pandemic to use robotic autosamplers to collect wastewater around the clock, so it can be tested for specific RNA remnants of COVID-19. Their innovative early-warning system now helps pinpoint which campus residences are experiencing infections, enabling the university to strategically target individual testing and rapidly quarantine students who test positive--sometimes unearthing the presence of COVID-19 infection in a dorm even before a single student has reported experiencing symptoms.

As this type of preventative wastewater research has expanded on some campuses across the country, Colosi-Peterson and Mathers see a market for these systems in nursing homes and other similar high-density residential facilities. Not only can they help prevent outbreaks and save lives, they have estimated that they can also save considerable money, staff time, and resident burden: widespread uses of wastewater testing could potentially enable nursing homes to significantly reduce the amount of COVID-19 testing conducted while still keeping residents safe. Many of these facilities require frequent testing even when infection rates in the facility are almost nonexistent. Not only could early detection systems spare residents by reducing the number of  uncomfortable testing procedures they could potentially enable residents to safely see loved ones again, some for the first time in months.

This technology is already a linchpin in the University of Virginia’s ability to keep students living on campus--now the researchers are beginning to help other facilities adopt this life-saving technology, mitigating COVID-19 outbreaks before they spread further. Professor Colosi-Peterson and Professor Mathers are available to discuss the UVA wastewater testing program and its implications for other types of larger residential facilities such as nursing homes, prisons, or even apartment complexes. 

You can read more about their groundbreaking research methods in this short piece on the UVA Engineering website.



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