City of Houston plans to test human waste for COVID-19 hot spots

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Could the future of tracking positive COVID-19 cases in Houston come from the sewer?

City officials and wastewater engineers are hoping their methods become the next tool in the toolbox to help predict future hot spots of the virus.

Right now, testing is conducted on an individualized basis. But sampling human wastewater for traces of the coronavirus could be on the cusp of providing valuable data, community wide.

Wastewater plants are seen all over Houston, 39 treatment facilities to be exact.

They're responsible for treating more than 250 million gallons of wastewater per day and connected by 6,100 miles of sewer lines.

They're meant to safely treat and return water to bayous and lakes, but they're getting ready to serve a different purpose: testing wastewater for signs of the COVID-19 virus.

Chief environmental science officer for the city of Houston, Dr. Lauren Hopkins, said, "we plan to analyze the wastewater all the way through December, weekly."

The wastewater analysis program is a collaborative effort with Rice University, and Baylor.

Professor Lauren Stadler is leading the partnership at Rice.

"What the goal of this is really to try and get another tool that allows the health department to track infection dynamics," Stadler said. "The idea is we could basically see these increases in infection in a community, up to a week ahead of when we might see it, with just looking at hospital data or looking at testing data."

Once a week, samples of wastewater are collected from a plant. Once an hour, over 24 hours.

The results are analyzed against previous week's data.

"So, if we see a clear increase in the viral concentration over time, it's suggesting that this is becoming a hot spot and that there's probably some ongoing community spread in that area," Stadler explained.

In theory, health officials and hospitals can take proper precautions for the potential influx of patients.

Down the road, they're looking into options using more targeted testing with special wastewater lift systems. There's close to 400 of those in Houston.

"To go in and actually take samples from say the wastewater discharged from a nursing home," Hopkins said.

This can also include a specific a neighborhood and even prisons could produce results.

It would allow for more targeted testing.

They have been collecting samples for approximately 10 weeks now.

"These first weeks have just been spent on trying to really refine it and see how we can do it," Hopkins said.

The lab is still working toward stronger confidence in their analysis before acting on any decisions based on data received.

"We collect the sample at the beginning of the week and we have some results by the end of the week," Stadler said.

The city's partnerships with Rice and Baylor's labs is expected to be fully up and running within the next month.

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