What is wastewater testing?

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This letter to the editor was originally published in the Collegian on Sept. 25, 2020

The CSU Pandemic Team thanks CSU students for doing their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 and answers the big question: What IS Wastewater Testing?

Dear CSU Students,

Thank you all for everything you’re doing this semester to help keep our community healthy. You’ve taken on some incredible new challenges, tackling the college experience while physically distancing, wearing a mask and limiting your gatherings to small numbers. Thank you. We see your hard work and encourage you to keep it up; the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our community is growing and we need your commitment to keep everyone healthy.

You’ve no doubt heard by now that the university is conducting COVID-19 wastewater testing. That means that the university’s public health team is running regular tests on the water that you flush down your residence hall toilets.  If the team finds a high enough concentration of the virus in that wastewater from a particular residence hall, that indicates that some students living in the building have COVID.

There may be an “eww” factor here, but from a science standpoint, this testing strategy is helping CSU stay open this fall by keeping all of you healthy. Here’s how:

  • The wastewater test picks up the virus at very low concentrations (as in, one person in hundreds), which means we can detect the virus well before it has spread.
  • Because wastewater testing picks up the virus even at very low concentrations, it is ideal for populations—like people your age—who may have COVID but not have any symptoms. This is critically important because, to date, ALL of the students who have tested positive for COVID-19 as part of this strategy, have learned that they were infected though early detection.
  • That’s the next key: We’re mandating testing immediately in buildings where wastewater results indicate positive COVID cases, to help slow the spread.
  • Then we’re asking students who are positive to self-isolate in rooms we’ve set aside, and during those two weeks we are delivering meals to them and helping them manage academics, drastically reducing the spread of the virus.
  • Finally, our public health office quickly traces anyone who may have had close contact with a COVID-19 positive student and those individuals are quarantined.
  • To date, because of wastewater results, we’ve run more than 16,000 nasal swab tests of students, faculty and staff in university housing or workplace buildings.

Through this strategy, the university immediately mandates testing for the students who live in these halls where COVID is detected and in the past have identified the few in each hall who had COVID-19. We help these students self-isolate appropriately, contact traced their close contacts and asked them to quarantine, and took all the other recommended public health precautions. If virus concentration levels in wastewater samples reach a mark that indicates more than a handful of people have COVID-19, the university can act swiftly to take broader steps, such as we did this week in quarantining Braiden and Summit Halls while we work to identify those who are infected.

So please: if you receive a message telling you to get tested, come down to the testing location right away. By doing so, you help keep everyone healthy, and help CSU stay open. The nasal swab test we are using is not the painful, deep sinus test you may have heard about. You administer the test on yourself and you only need to swab part of the way into your nostril. It’s as fast, easy and painless as we can make it, and it’s also free.

We are pleased that our COVID numbers are currently low and that our testing strategy is working. And we know that this current success is largely thanks to all of you. You are proving every day that Rams take care of Rams.

Thanks for helping us provide in-person classes and keep our community healthy.

Sincerely,

The CSU Pandemic Preparedness Team