MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A new state website is making it easier to see levels of COVID-19 in a community by displaying wastewater test results.
The GVSU Annis Water Resources Institute laboratory in Muskegon is one of the laboratories processing the samples, which can be an early indicator of a spike in cases.
Alexis Porter, a research assistant for the lab, helps analyze samples in many West Michigan communities.
“It helps us understand what’s going on in the population so that we can … give better help to areas that are under higher diseases burden,” Porter said.
The lab began analyzing samples in November of 2020 through a state pilot program that has since been expanded.
“We are able to see spikes before people develop symptoms because we are able to see both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people,” Porter said.
The samples are collected from wastewater treatment plants and other locations in the sewer system to indicate case levels in buildings.
Susan Peters, a waterborne disease epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says the testing has been helpful in detecting trends. It allows scientists to see spikes days or even weeks before it shows up in other test results.
“Overall most of the sites saw the surge, unfortunately, that we are experiencing this fall,” Peters said. “Historically wastewater has been tested for Polio that was really the main disease that was tracked that way and very successfully.”
The state has launched a new online dashboard making it easy for people to see wastewater test results in their area.
“We have had other data sets up, publicly available before, but this is … the first time we’re having a deeper dive into the data and providing some additional analysis along with the data itself,” Peters said.
The program is testing between 425 and 450 locations throughout Michigan.
“It’s providing us information either at a building level or a community level but never at an individual’s level,” Peters said.
The Muskegon lab can also detect variants. Scientists were able to see when Delta became the dominant strain in many communities and is working on a way to look for the new omicron variant.
“We’re able to see it first before it gets too far ahead in the population,” Porter said.
The wastewater testing dashboards can be viewed on the MDHHS website.