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Colorado sewage treatment plants are examining poop for coronavirus clues

Humans begin to shed coronavirus in their feces within three days of infection, which could provide a heads up on outbreaks

For 24 hours starting early every Sunday morning, small pipes suck samples from the river of sewage flowing into the South Platte Water Renewal Partners wastewater treatment plant in Englewood for 24 hours.

The tubes deposit the raw sewage into containers inside a box that resembles a mini fridge. Goggled, masked and gloved workers then haul the samples to the plant lab, package it in special vials and overnight it to a lab near Boston.

There it becomes part of a national effort to track the novel coronavirus through poop.

At least two Front Range water treatment entities and one Western Slope county are taking part in this attempt to determine how much of a given population might be infected with coronavirus, if the virus’ spread is increasing or decreasing, and where hotspots of the highly infectious virus might be.

Sewage surveillance, poop tracking, wastewater epidemiology. Call it what you will. It involves looking for and tallying fragments of the virus’ RNA, its genetic material in human waste. It’s a search akin to finding a fingerprint rather than locating an entire body. The numbers of these genetic RNA fragments can be calibrated with population to give an estimate of how many virus carriers there are. The density of the genetic material in specific waste streams can also point to virus hotspots in communities.

Peter West, operator at South Platte Water Renewal Partners, prepares to take a sample of raw sewage from the influent intake on May 12, 2020. South Platte Water Renewal Partners serves Englewood, Littleton and 21 smaller sewage systems.
Fecal surveillance is like testing an entire city

Looking for the coronavirus in feces has a number of advantages. The virus can be detected in poop within three days of infection. That is days before most people would show signs of having the virus. The RNA levels detected in feces can highlight a problem weeks before there is a discernible outbreak. And it can be done on a population-wide basis, rather than trying to individually test thousands of residents to glean similar information.

“I think it certaily has potential. We are looking at it as something in the overall tool kit for the state,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Stacey Walker, South Platte Water Renewal Partners lab manager, packs up samples of raw sewage to send out to be tested at the BioBot Analytics lab near Boston.

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