The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, the local health department and St. Mary’s College of Maryland have partnered on a pilot project to monitor the presence of the novel coronavirus in wastewater.
According to a May 29 release, detecting novel coronavirus in local wastewater before outbreaks of coronavirus disease happen allows for early public health intervention to suppress disease and readying of health care resources.
MetCom is providing wastewater samples from all county wastewater treatment plants to the college, and the health department is supporting laboratory supplies so faculty from the biology department can process the samples.
Early results of the pilot study confirm the presence of coronavirus in local wastewater and based on the results from that study, health department epidemiologists and faculty from the college biology and mathematics departments will work together to develop a longer-term sampling protocol in order to monitor the wastewater in the community and inform public health decision making.
“We need to think about the longterm with COVID-19. We may be dealing with this virus for years,” Dr. Meena Brewster, health officer for the county said, according to the release. “This pilot study on virus in wastewater helps us plan for longer-term monitoring. In the future, when this pandemic is over, we may have to play whack-a-rona with this virus — pick up on early signs of it re-emerging and aggressively implement public health measures to suppress it before it becomes an epidemic.”
During a public health update to commissioners on Tuesday, Brewster said they are testing for what is basically “skeletons of the virus” in wastewater, and it isn’t alive when the sample is tested.
George Erichsen, executive director of MetCom, said they are “excited about the opportunity to help quantify the scale of this virus and potentially determine if there is a population link to a specific wastewater treatment plant,” according to the release.
Erichsen told The Enterprise on Monday afternoon the idea to test wastewater samples came from reading articles about it taking place in the Netherlands and some states in the U.S., and it could help show “how effective treatment is against the virus,” he said.
Since the MetCom office does not currently have the specific equipment needed to test samples, St. Mary’s College was contacted for use of its labs.
He said since college is not in session due to the coronavirus, they are able to use the labs at the college, but when students come back they’ll need their own equipment for testing samples. Erichsen said MetCom submitted for funding under the CARES Act, which he is confident will get approved.
St. Mary’s College President Tuajuanda Jordan said the college “is happy to lend its expertise to this important local initiative that may prove beneficial for the citizens of the state beyond the county.” She added, “This collaborative partnership … is supported by our local COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group and is the first of it’s kind in Maryland.”
For more information about COVID-19, visit www.smchd.org/coronavirus/.
Community members may call the COVID-19 Community Hotline at 301-475-4911 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. for COVID-19 information.