Salina wastewater being studied by scientists to monitor COVID

As part of a nationwide initiative, scientists from two of the top research institutes in America are studying what is being flushed down the toilets of Salinans right now.

Salina is taking part in the Wastewater Sewer Coronavirus Alert Network (WastewaterSCAN), a program led by researchers at Stanford University and Emory University, that monitors infectious diseases, such as the one that causes COVID-19, by sampling and analyzing the genetic material from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, one of only two places in Kansas.

Martha Tasker, director of utilities for the city, said the prospect of joining the program was brought to her by Black and Veatch, an engineering firm that is assisting the city on a wastewater plant upgrade.

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It was an easy “yes” for Tasker, as she knew that this data could be used for the greater good of the community and humanity in general.

“I thought, it seems like something that could have some value,” Tasker said. “What can it hurt? If it provides valuable information to somebody, (why not do it)?”

What is actually being monitored?

The program, which is managed by Verily Life Sciences, has participating communities collect samples from their wastewater plants three times a week, which are shipped, overnight, to the lab.

“The samples come pre-packaged in like a kit,” said Monty Hole, wastewater collection supervisor for Salina. “Basically, we take the sample, put it in their jars, seal it up, put it in an envelope and stick it in the box, which is already pre-printed with an overnight label.”

Two of the buildings at the City of Salina wastewater treatment plant. Scientists from Stanford University and Emory University are researching samples collected three times a week at the plant for the presence of infectious diseases.

Tasker said Hole is the one who collects the samples, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and it is a pretty simple process.

“They tried to make it as easy on us as they can because they want to get the samples to have the data,” Tasker said.

The program doesn’t actually measure infectious diseases in the wastewater, but instead the presence of genetic markers of those diseases.

This kind of research and testing has more uses than just COVID. In fact, in some sites that Verily is working with it is monitoring other diseases as well.

“The company is monitoring (COVID-causing) SARS-CoV-2, Influenza A, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (and) Monkeypox,” Tasker said.

Who can see the data and how quickly is it available?

Another thing that caught Tasker’s attention about the program is the availability of the data collected. According to information from Verily, the data is free and publicly available through an online dashboard.

“This would be powerful stuff if you’re in the medical field,” Tasker said.

The data also comes in fast with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours from when the samples are received at the lab to when the results are posted online. With wastewater in Salina taking, on average, no more than 24 hours to reach the plant and having samples sent overnight, which means that from the time a toilet flushes to when data is received may be less than three days.

“You’re not really looking to see how (our) number compares to another city,” Tasker said. “What you’re looking as is trends (within our community).”

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Anecdotally, Tasker said it seems that the data may point to some of these trends, even after collecting in Salina for less than two months. The results from Verily showed an uptick in the presence of the genetic markers at the end of August and into the beginning of September.

“What’s weird is that when (there was a) spike that was going up (then) we had a lot of (employees) at the city that had COVID,” Tasker said.

More sampling sites wanted

Currently, Verily is getting samples from 53 wastewater plants from 17 different states, serving almost 20 million people, with Salina and Lawrence are currently the only two sites in Kansas.

Verily is hoping more cities and sewersheds get on board with this program so it can add to the sample size of the research.

“They’re looking to have 300 (sites)…trying to take a look across the entire United States,” Tasker said.

By looking at the entire country, Tasker said there’s even the possibility for seeing how the presence of COVID or other diseases in wastewater moves from one part of the country to another.

“They may see trends in it hitting (either) coast…and see how far we (in Kansas) are behind,” Tasker said.