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Mecklenburg County using wastewater to track the spread of COVID-19

“Case counts are becoming more unreliable for us,”
Since the start of the pandemic, health leaders have used different tools to detect the spread of Covid - most notably - community testing.
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 10:13 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Since the start of the pandemic, health leaders have used different tools to detect the spread of COVID with the most notable being community testing.

Now, local health leaders are pivoting, saying relying on community testing is not the most accurate method to test for and track COVID, they’re turning to a method that starts with a flush at home.

What goes down your toilet could help Mecklenburg County track the level of COVID-19 in your community. It’s known as wastewater surveillance of COVID-19.

“This is measured a little bit differently; it’s measured in terms of percentiles,” Dr. Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County Health Director, said.

The County Health Director said there are four sites in Mecklenburg County testing for COVID-19 in wastewater. The current system covering about 370,000 people.

“Case counts are becoming more unreliable for us, doesn’t mean they’re not useful, it doesn’t mean the percent positivity does not tell us something, but those metrics are becoming less reliable as the portion of cases we can count is getting much lower,” Dr. Washington said.

Experts point to the rise in people using at-home tests which aren’t reported to health officials.

“Many of the infections in the community are not counted by public health agencies, either of us locally, statewide or otherwise,” Dr. Washington added.

But wastewater surveillance can give health leaders a more reliable indication of COVID-19 in the community, and an early warning for spikes in COVID cases.

“You start seeing the positive signal in wastewater maybe 4-5 days in advance before you start seeing the spike in cases clinically,” Dr. Mariya Munir, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNC Charlotte said.

It’s a method that’s been used by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte since the fall of 2020.

Signals in wastewater can help leaders set policies and get people tested in an area.

“It is effective, it is a way that can provide more information to public health officials on whether cases are going down or up,” Dr. Munir said.

Dr. Munir sits on the National Wastewater Surveillance System board and tells me the wastewater surveillance program could expand here in Mecklenburg County.

In total, the state of North Carolina has over 20 sites that are working with the CDC to track COVID in wastewater.

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