Here's how EMU is using wastewater tests to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks

From requiring masks and taking temperatures to contact tracing, most people are familiar with standard public health measures to identify and slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But Ypsilanti residents may not know that their hometown educational institution, Eastern Michigan University (EMU), was among the first in the nation to use wastewater monitoring to find potential COVID-19 outbreaks before they start.

"In the summer of 2020, when we started [wastewater testing], only a handful of universities were doing this," says Christopher Gellasch, associate professor in EMU's Department of Geography and Geology. 

A firm called Aquasite comes to EMU twice a week to collect wastewater samples that get shipped to a lab at Oakland University. When the data is returned, Gellasch and others at EMU look for spikes in the level of virus detected. That helps them pinpoint where to direct resources. 

"We can't test everybody all the time, so this helps us figure out where we should do testing," Gellasch says. "Say we find out a dorm has high levels. We'll target that dorm and make sure everybody goes to the testing center so we can find out who's positive and take quarantine measures."

Gellasch says the science behind wastewater testing isn't new to the COVID-19 virus and has been around for about 20 years. When Gellasch was an environmental scientist in the Army, he did similar work testing wastewater for intestinal diseases.

"Coronavirus is a different type of virus, but the same thing happens where it's being excreted … at really high concentrations, millions of viruses per gram of stool, even in wastewater with that dilution," Gellasch says. 

The PCR technique for identifying the virus looks for the virus' genetic material and amplifies it enough for it to be detected with medical instruments. 

Gellasch says he includes anecdotes and data from EMU's wastewater tests in his current classes. The information will also be directly relevant to an upcoming new civil engineering program course on water and wastewater engineering.
"We're a leader with some of this wastewater testing," Gellasch says. "I'm very proud we're doing this science-based approach to assess risk and mitigate it. It's one of the reasons we have so few cases on campus."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.