Carroll College develops system for COVID-19 wastewater surveillance of Helena area

Posted at 11:11 AM, Sep 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-30 21:21:04-04

HELENA — Carroll College, Lewis and Clark County, the City of Helena and the City of East Helena are partnering for COVID-19 wastewater surveillance.

Researchers at the college are testing municipal wastewater samples for the presence and concentration of severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Understanding the full extent of the virus in any given area has been an ongoing challenge for health departments across the nation. This testing helps Lewis and Clark Public Health track the rise and fall of coronavirus in those populations.

Public Health had been relying on large scale diagnostic testing to track COVID prevalence, but that doesn’t show a full picture.

"Unlike someone making a decision to go and get tested for COVID-19, we all use the toilet right?" explained Eric Merchant, administrator for disease control and prevention for Lewis and Clark Public Health. "So really what we’re looking at here in this way is testing of wastewater provides a true positive population indicator. If it’s there we have sick people in our community, we know that."

The County had used a national company earlier this year for wastewater testing, but results were taking weeks or more to come back which isn’t beneficial for tracking the virus.

Carroll gets their samples on a Wednesday and provides results on Friday of that week.

Stefanie Otto-Hitt, Associate Professor of Biology, Theresa McHugh, Assistant Professor of Biology, and Ashley Beck, Assistant Professor of Biology, are the ones conducting the wastewater surveillance and correlating their SARS-CoV-2 measurements with the daily number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county.

“My colleagues and I are grateful for the opportunity to use the skills and resources we have here at Carroll in order to provide meaningful data for our community during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Otto-Hitt. “We feel very fortunate to have a highly supportive and engaged network of collaborators across the cities of Helena, East Helena, and the Lewis and Clark County Public Health. The process of getting the surveillance testing up and running has truly been a team effort.”

Otto-Hitt says they’ve been looking for ways to help the community since COVID first appeared in the State, originally looking into if diagnostic testing was possible for them to conduct. When the opportunity for the wastewater testing came they jumped on the opportunity.

"Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be in this situation, but it just feels really good to be able to use the skills and tools we have here at Carroll to contribute something to this difficult time that everyone is experiencing," said Otto-Hitt. "Even back in March when COVID started entering Montana, we really wanted to get up on the diagnostic testing. When this opportunity came along it was just like, 'Yes! We want to be involved and we want to be useful to the community.'"

The team at Carroll already had all the tools they needed and worked with colleagues at Montana State University, the University of Utah and published works on the subject to develop their testing methods.

Otto-Hitt and McHugh worked closely with members of the biology and facilities departments, as well as researchers at Carroll that have been conducting West Nile research.

For the testing, Carroll researchers are using a PEG-based viral precipitation procedure in order to isolate the virus from wastewater to determine the concentration of coronavirus per liter of wastewater.

Humans naturally shed a fair amount of viruses through fecal matter. Carroll is able to identify genetic markers unique to SARS-CoV-2 in a wastewater sample.

Early results of samples taken have shown a correlation between higher concentrations of the virus in wastewater and the number of cases in the cities of Helena and East Helena.

The testing is funded by CARES Act dollars through the end of the year and doesn’t cost Carroll or Lewis and Clark County anything.

Lewis and Clark Public Health told MTN they'd like to continue the wastewater testing as long as it is needed due to how beneficial the information is to tracking the virus prevalence in the community.

Carroll is already using the data collected as learning opportunities in their classrooms, and will publish all of their findings and methods for public use.