IDAHO — As the omicron variant of COVID-19 pops up in states throughout the US, Idaho is investing in a way to test for COVID-19 from wastewater.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is using federal money to fund labs to analyze wastewater samples across the state. It's something the City of Boise has been doing since early in the pandemic.
They collect the wastewater samples and bring them here to Boise State University where they test the samples for the SARS-COV-2 virus.
“It’s a good way for us to look at what’s going on in a community without having to test everybody in the community which is not possible,” Chief of the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories, Christopher Ball said.
Here’s how it works: the City of Boise collects samples from the wastewater coming into both of its water renewal facilities daily. Then, a lab team at Boise Sate University gets to work.
“We sterilize the wastewater and then we capture the virus particles inside the wastewater and then we count them so we can see how much virus is in the wastewater,” Ernie Ogden, one of the people involved with testing the wastewater at BSU, said.
They're then able to track this data over time to see spikes.
"There's evidence that it can help predict those trends. Based on the research we're doing and the data we're producing it seems like that the—if we see a rise in the SARS-COV-2 RNA or the virus particle that results in COVID-19 it can show up in the wastewater, I think it was two weeks earlier than the hospitalization rates," Ogden said.
You can see the City of Boise's COVID-19 wastewater dashboard here.
“It really serves as a trend indicator of what’s happening in the community and an early indicator for how the variants are changing in the wastewater,” Haley Falconer, the Environmental Manager for the City of Boise Public Works Department, said.
The City of Boise sends separate samples to the University of Missouri three times a week for variant testing.
“We had early indications of the delta variant before there were any clinical cases in the region,” Falconer said.
Falconer said they haven’t seen any indications yet of the omicron variant.
Wastewater testing doesn’t tell officials how many COVID-19 cases there are, but they say the information they get from this testing is helpful, especially with more people choosing at-home COVID-19 testing which doesn't get reported to the state.
“Our hope is by incorporating more of a comprehensive wastewater program we might be able to indirectly get a sense of what’s going on in communities as the ratio of PCR to at-home testing continues to skew more towards at-home testing,” Ball said.
Five labs across the state will analyze wastewater samples. The labs will be at the bureau of laboratories, Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Lewis and Clark State College and Idaho State University.
“Those laboratories will test wastewater from up to 15 communities if we can successfully recruit that many,” Ball said.
The Department of Health and Welfare said they’re still in the early stages of this process so they can’t say how many communities will be participating in the program yet. They hope to get everything up and running in four to six weeks.
Falconer said in the future, wastewater testing could give public health officials important information about more than COVID-19.
“It could be used for things like the seasonal flu, Norovirus or things like opioids or other indicators of community health,” Falconer said.