Montgomery County Health Officials Launch COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Project

by Patrick Herron

Per Montgomery County: Montgomery County health officials, in partnership with the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland-College Park (UMD), recently launched wastewater surveillance to detect COVID-19 circulating in the community. Wastewater surveillance provides an accurate way to detect illness-causing viruses and bacteria, such as SARS-CoV-2. Water samples will be collected bi-weekly at five sites in the County and sent to UMD for analysis. Data and results will be posted on the County’s COVID-19 website and the information will be updated weekly.

“Wastewater surveillance will be a game changer for our efforts to better predict outbreaks and prevent them from happening,” said County Executive Marc Elrich. “The partnership between our Department of Health and Human Services, the Maryland Department of Health, the University of Maryland and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is an important tool to help us protect the health of our residents. With winter around the corner, we want to be prepared if there is another surge in COVID-19 cases and this surveillance system helps us do that.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people infected with SARS-CoV-2 can shed the virus in their feces, even if they do not have symptoms. The virus can then be detected in wastewater, enabling wastewater surveillance to capture the presence of SARS-CoV-2 shed by people with and without symptoms. This means wastewater surveillance can serve as an early warning that COVID-19 is spreading in a community.

Unlike clinical testing where only a subgroup of individuals is tested, wastewater surveillance is non-invasive and all residents in a community contributing to a sewage collection system can be tested at once. It can be implemented throughout communities in Montgomery County as most of them are served by municipal wastewater collection systems. Rapid self-testing is increasingly popular, but many of the results are not reported, leaving health officials with only a partial overview of community infection.

Wastewater surveillance provides supplemental data, when used along with other surveillance data and serves as an early detection/ warning for increasing level of community transmission and surge of COVID-19 and other infections/emerging diseases. More info and data can be found on the County’s COVID-19 website.

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