HOLLAND Mich. (WOOD) — Hope College is expanding a wastewater program that helps detect COVID-19 outbreaks early.

Last fall, the college was awarded a $700,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to test the wastewater program.

Now the state has awarded Hope with a $7.5 million grant to expand the program further. The money is set to be disbursed over two years.

For the last year, a team of students and staff have been taking weekly samples of wastewater and testing for elevated levels of SARS-CoV-2.

“We were able to do nine different zones and we were able to (test) those five times a week, every week day,” said professor Aaron Best, who helps runs the program.  

Best says if the samples showed an elevated level of SARs-CoV-2, the college would put the word out to students that COVID-19 cases were likely on the rise in the area and could begin testing. Best says about 90 cases were determined because of the early detection.

“During certain parts of the year, there were times when there were really kind of major outbreaks happening, so lots of students coming down with COVID-19 but we were able to understand it’s isolated on this part of campus and it’s really not over here,” said Best.

With the new grant dollars, Hope plans to double their staff and work in an additional lab at the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute. The team will begin testing in Allegan, Berry, Branch, Calhoun, Eaton, Hillsdale, Kalamazoo, Ottawa and St. Joseph counties.  Best estimates the team will take more than 300 samples every week.

“A program like this, what it allows you to do is know the state of the pandemic. We’re kind of getting into this period where it feels like the pandemic is sort of ending but it’s really not,” said Best. “We don’t quite have enough vaccinations in the state to really stop the disease and I suspect that’s where we’re going to be for quite a while.”

Best says they hope to be functioning at full scale in the additional counties by the fall.  

“We are excited. It was great. It was kind of a shot in the dark that (the wastewater testing) might work and it definitely worked. It’s been an integral part of what Hope College did,” said Best.