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Wastewater Research 'Can Tell You the Whole Story About Society'

The University of Missouri

Marc Johnson and Chung-ho Lin are both researchers at the University of Missouri who study wastewater – yes, like sewage – to learn about human health and track things like outbreaks of COVID-19.

They spoke about how their research in wastewater allows them to gain insight into human health – like COVID-19 infections, and how it could be useful even once the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org

Marc Johnson: So, that’s the idea, they wanted to just have a way of monitoring COVID levels within a community using the wastewater, and the idea is that it could be an early warning system, but it's as much an early warning system as it is just a reality check – that it tells the community how many infections they really have.

Chung-ho Lin: People do all kinds of testing, okay? Basically, what they are doing is just positive and negative confirmation, but what we're doing is certainly another label. So, not only do we want to know whether it [COVID-19] is there, at the same time, we want to know how much.

Johnson: We’ve been testing prisons since the summer.

Lin: Yeah. We’ve prevented a lot of outbreaks.

Johnson: We were testing initially, and to be honest, back in July – the only place that was negative completely were the prisons, and when suddenly it was like, “Oh! There’s something there.” We'd call them, and then they'll like go in and do more testing.

But the thing is – when there's an outbreak in a prison, it goes fast because inmates aren't necessarily forthcoming about their symptoms. So, it's good to have an independent measure of whether, you know, you need to do more testing,

Lin: Yeah. Also, health professional, they can utilize that information to evaluate how effective their mitigation, also for how to invest their testing resource more wisely.

Johnson: One thing we can't do yet, but I still think we will be able to is, “Okay. We got a number of 50,000. How many patients is that?” Well, we can get closer, but somehow you still have to connect it with something.

We have a bit of a spike going on now, in Columbia and lots of other places in the state too, and it's not obvious why we're having a spike right now.

Why do you think we're having a spike right now?

Lin: I think it's something related to the pandemic fatigue…

Johnson: I think that's what most people are thinking.

Lin: Yeah.

Johnson: … they're letting their guard down, and so, when people are letting their guard down, and now we're getting into cold and flu season, every time someone gets sniffles, when there's this fatigue, people might not be as eager to go get tested.

So, what could be really good is we’ll know if there’s an outbreak in the community. We can tell the health department, “Okay, this is serious. You need to really push the testing because this isn't just the cold that's going around right now.”

Lin: Yeah. I was told by a friend of mine that especially when they're hanging out with close family or friends, sometimes they subconsciously assume they’re safe.

Once we have a vaccine available, this can also be a useful tool to monitor how effective vaccination for the population. So, we can see…

Johnson: Yeah… if people are vaccinated, you wouldn't expect there to be infections, so you might let your guard down.

LIn: Wastewater can tell you a lot of the story about a community. So, we're monitoring 86 different personal care products – pharmaceutical in wastewater, and just by looking at that chemical profile you can kind of assess and evaluate the well-being of society.

I would say, 15 mil of wastewater, they can tell you the whole story about the society.

This piece was reported and produced by Casey Murray.

Casey Murray is a senior at Mizzou studying multimedia journalism and English. In her free time, she performs sketch comedy and bakes vegan desserts, but professionally hopes to pursue a career in radio and podcasting.
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