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Wastewater Testing Helps to Combat COVID-19 at the Mount

Donna Klinger and Matthew Fraley

wastewater feature

Asymptomatic individuals pose a risk as spreaders of the novel coronavirus on university campuses. Mount St. Mary’s University and its community partners are mitigating that risk by using dual-modality wastewater testing to inform its surveillance testing program.

Through analysis of wastewater from individual residence halls for the novel coronavirus’ genetic signature, conducted in partnership with the Frederick County Department of Health, the Mount is able to pinpoint buildings where COVID-19 may be present and then conduct surveillance swab testing.

In early September, when wastewater analysis revealed the possible presence of the novel coronavirus in a freshman residence hall, all 221 residents were tested using nasal swabs to determine if there may be carriers of coronavirus in the building. The following day results revealed that approximately 5 percent of the residents tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 10 students who tested positive, 9 were asymptomatic. All 10 were placed in isolation away from the residence hall. Subsequent wastewater analysis results precipitated surveillance swab testing of an apartment building.  The COVID-19 testing found three positive cases, two of which were asymptomatic.

Testing wastewater for the novel coronavirus’ genetic signature provides communities like ours a faster way to spot a possible increase in cases and potentially prevent an outbreak,” said President Timothy E. Trainor, Ph.D. “We are grateful for the Frederick County Department of Health’s support with this program, which we view as being critical in containing the virus.

Associate Professor of Biochemistry Mike Turner, Ph.D., and Will Wood, environmental health and safety manager for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics, have led the wastewater testing initiative.Turner took on the role of consulting and testing, while Wood developed and manages the testing process for this initiative.

According to Turner, the program involves collecting samples of wastewater from key buildings on campus in order to detect “trace amounts of the virus that people shed from using restroom facilities (sinks, showers, toilets ).” The program tests wastewater twice per week, which allows for rapid responses to properly isolate residence halls as needed, identify those infected, and prevent a larger community outbreak.

Samples are collected by the Maryland Environmental Services, which operates the water treatment facility on campus. Samples are collected “at manhole locations for 10 residence halls, one administrative building, and the end of the line for all campus wastewater,” Wood said. From there, the samples are taken to the Coad science building for “pasteurization, aliquoting (if necessary), and packaging for transport.” The samples are then sent to CosmosID in Rockville, where they are tested. Turner and Assistant Professor Eric Sakowski, Ph.D., are working to determine if samples can be processed in-house if needed.

Bi-weekly testing helps to quickly identify “infected buildings, quickly perform individual-based testing, and then isolate/quarantine the infected and the close contacts of the infected,” Turner said. “In my opinion, the wastewater testing—combined with the in-house contact tracing and the compliance of students to live by the conduct pledge/agreement—are the keys to our success at the Mount this fall; they are the reason we are still here, face-to-face, and not having to do everything remotely.”

Wood agreed: “Having this knowledge allows the University to respond rapidly with testing and contact tracing along with the necessary isolation and quarantine associated with infection.”

The Mount’s surveillance testing program includes approximately 250 COVID-19 tests a week of randomly selected student-athletes, commuter and residential students. All students and the majority of staff were tested at the start of the semester. The Mount has 1,900 full-time undergraduate students this fall, with 257 distance learners and 1,643 attending hybrid classes on campus, 1,297 of whom are residential students.

Donna Klinger and Matthew Fraley