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Longmont, other communities begin tracking COVID-19 presence in wastewater – Longmont Times-Call

Longmont is participating in a multi-agency project to sample the raw sewage headed for local Colorado wastewater treatment plants for the presence of COVID-19.

Communities elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe have used similar projects to provide an early warning of a COVID-19 outbreak, according to a recent Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment news release, an Aug. 12 press call by that agency and a briefing the Longmont Council got from its own city staff last week.

Monitoring for the virus in wastewater may help inform community officials whether there will be an outbreak in a couple of days to a week in advance of such an outbreak, state health officials said.

“The virus can appear in poop before someone shows any symptoms,” state health officials said in a website about the program, tinyurl.com/y54lgo28.

Longmont City Manager Harold Dominguez cautioned during the City Council’s Aug. 11 meeting that the sampling at the city’s plant will not provide specific determinations of how many coronavirus cases are actually in the city at any given time.

“The science isn’t there” for that, he said.

However, the program will help local officials understand and prepare for “what’s coming at you in the future,” Dominguez said, by providing information that he said would be “more timely” than what’s been available in the past.

Roberto Luna, Longmont’s water quality laboratory supervisor in the Department of Public Works and Natural Resources’ Environmental Services Division, told Council that Longmont will be taking samples of untreated wastewater twice a week for a one-year period and sending them to a Colorado State University laboratory to check for the presence of COVID-19.

Luna said in an email Monday afternoon that Longmont collected its first sample for the program earlier Monday.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health’s website, other participants in the project are the Boulder Water Resource Recovery Facility, the Broomfield Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Louisville Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The state health department said in its Aug. 12 news release that the 16 wastewater utilities that have signed up for the COVID-19 sampling program represent 60% to 65% of Colorado’s population. The wastewater samples collected at their treatment plants will be sent to Colorado State University — or in some cases, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The state health department and local public health epidemiologists will then analyze the results to help understand potential trends for COVID-19 cases in those communities.

“Knowing whether we’ll have an increase in cases allows health officials to adapt and shift resources to those communities so they are ready for the outbreak,” Nicole Rowan, clean water program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement.

“And if we see a potential decrease in cases, then it can be one tool in the toolbox to help inform whether to ease up on restrictions,” Rowan said in the news release.

Nisha Alden, the Colorado Department of Public Health’s respiratory disease and COVID-19 surveillance program manager, said, “While we are still learning about how the virus is shed, we believe this innovative project will help us see trends on a communitywide scale. With a virus like this, we need multiple sources of data to help keep it contained.”

The Denver Post has reported that during a press call about the program last Wednesday, Rowan said researchers are still working out how much of the virus in the wastewater would need to change before it constitutes a meaningful signal.

Rowan said it will take at least a few months before they have enough data to start drawing conclusions.

The $520,000 cost of the wastewater COVID-19 testing program is being paid from a combination of federal and state funds, state officials said. Participating local wastewater utilities do not have to provide any cash funds.

Luna said Monday that before the formation of the new state collaboration, most of the Front Range utilities, including Longmont, were working with Biobot Analytics, a private company in Cambridge, Mass., on a similar sampling effort.

The intent now is to replace that previous program with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment program, Luna said.

While Longmont has already started collecting its first sample under the new state-coordinated program, the City Council is expected at its Aug. 25 meeting to consider approving an intergovernmental agreement formally authorizing the city’s participation in the program.

Luna said the collaborative effort to provide comprehensive statewide information on COVID-19 will “provide one more tool that can be used by state and local health agencies and epidemiologists to understand potential trends in COVID-19 cases.”


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