FAU researchers test wastewater on campus to find COVID-19 cases

(WSVN) - With a post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases, tracking this pandemic is getting tougher for health officials, but right here in South Florida, scientists are now literally going underground to monitor levels of the virus. 7’s Kevin Ozebek has more in tonight’s 7 Investigates.

This is the type of COVID-19 test we are used to seeing, but at Florida Atlantic University, COVID testing is being taken to a whole different level.

Instead of a swab, you need a pole, and instead of taking a sample from someone’s nose, it’s taken from the sewer system.

Rakib Ahmed, FAU Master’s student: “It is very nasty, but if you’re wearing the mask, you’re OK.”

For the last several months, FAU students have strapped on the PPE and then collected wastewater samples across campus.

Frederick Bloetscher, FAU Engineering professor: “This, for us, is a pretty easy way to do tracing that doesn’t really get into people’s personal space.”

If you have COVID, the virus sheds in your waste, so with every flush of the toilet, the feces and the virus are pumped into the sewage system, which collects in lift stations.

Frederick Bloetscher: “Poop doesn’t lie.”

COVID can survive up to a week or more in wastewater, so the samples help researchers pinpoint the problem areas.

Frederick Bloetscher: “If this lift station to my left here comes up positive, then we know it’s this building that has people that are COVID positive.”

From the lift stations, the samples are taken to the university lab, where they are put in a centrifuge.

Kevin Ozebek: “When you were a kid, did you dream you’d be centrifuging poo?”

Alamgir Kabir, FAU PhD student: “Definitely not, definitely not.”

They are tested and analyzed, and the students are finding spikes.

Rakib Ahmed: “The number is a little high for a couple of dormitories.”

Wastewater testing is also going on in cities across South Florida.

Dr. Jennifer Jurado, Broward County: “It could give us some insight for the potential increase in cases.”

Dr. Jennifer Jurado is the director of Broward County Environmental Planning.

She says the county is partnering with Nova Southeastern University to track COVID in wastewater, and the state is considering using their samples to look for potential mutations.

Dr. Jennifer Jurado: “We might be able to provide some early insight as to how that might be emerging and be able to pick up on some trends before we’re actually seeing it realized in a population.”

It is vital information that helps in the fight against the virus.

Frederick Bloetscher: “If you’re a municipality and all of the sudden, we test your lift stations and we start to see it climb, then what you want to do is say, ‘Hey, public health people, hospitals, doctor’s offices, be aware. There is potentially a wave of COVID coming your way, and then, they can plan for that.'”

But it’s not just COVID. Wastewater testing can also find different strains of flu and other illnesses.

Frederick Bloetscher: “And I think we’re only scratching the surface. This is a great opportunity to find something that’s really helpful, but it’s certainly not the only application.”

And for these students, it makes the dirty work worthwhile.

Alamgir Kabir: “Whatever we are doing, we are doing it for the mankind.”

Kevin Ozebek: “All in the name of science.”

Alamgir Kabir: “Yes.”

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