AUSTIN (KXAN) — University of Texas at Austin researchers are once again testing wastewater samples after running out of funding for the project in the fall of last year. Paired with a new Center for Disease Control and Prevention tool, you can now track their research in real time.
UT researchers say monitoring wastewater will alert health leaders to future rises in cases before they are detected using clinical tests — which will be especially important as people stop testing regularly and resort to home tests, which are not always reported to the health department.
Monitoring wastewater at a time when cases are low could also provide earlier notice, researchers said.
“The only way to get that two-week advance notice is when the cases are so low you can spot a difference,” said Kerry Kinney, a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “It will be interesting doing monitoring going forward to see when cases rise. At this point, we haven’t gotten out of the pandemic to monitor for its resurgence.”
That data is something Austin Public Health is now including in COVID-19 reports being given to city leaders. In this week’s report, APH said: “The CDC’s wastewater surveillance tool has given us another means to monitor the burden of disease in the community.”
That wastewater dashboard shows viral load in Travis County dropped dramatically after the omicron surge, but started to rise slightly again at the beginning of March. On March 9, researchers were reporting 39 copies/mL of wastewater. As of May 11, they’re reporting 162 copies.
That matches regional and national trends which also show a dramatic drop in COVID-19 detected in wastewater after the omicron surge this winter and then a slight increase in cases since March.
The sampling is happening at the Walnut Creek wastewater treatment plant and the South Austin Regional wastewater treatment plant. Those samples are sent to Biota Technology, which is partnering with the CDC to publish the data for the public.
You can track Travis County’s wastewater testing data in real time here.
Wastewater testing previously put on hold
After a delay in testing due to funding restraints, the Texas Division of Emergency Management has given the researchers $150,000 to continue that testing, according to a release from UT.
KXAN has previously reported that UT’s wastewater testing was put on hold because researchers ran out of funding, which was initially provided through the Cockrell School and a couple of research grants.
Still, Professor Mary Jo Kirisits, who is leading that research team, told us she was still collecting those samples and storing them for later testing. Because of that continued collection, samples from over the holidays will be able to be tested after-the-fact to track historic trends.
“There are so many things we can track in wastewater, and we should be doing that,” she said. “Once you have those samples, you might as well interrogate for multiple markers associated with human disease.”