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Helena and Lewis and Clark County use wastewater to test for COVID-19

Posted at 6:41 PM, May 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-10 12:03:52-04

HELENA -- The two ways to tell if a person has, or had, COVID-19 is through a nasal swab test or through an antibody test, respectively. As for an entire community, Lewis and Clark county and the city of Helena are sending off samples to BioBot, a company that specializes in wastewater epidemiology, to test for COVID-19.

On average, the city of Helena's Wastewater Treatment facility will take a sample every hour, and then one liter of the compiled samples will be sent to BioBot for testing.

The test is being used as one of the criteria for Lewis and Clark county's process of progressing into phase two of Governor Bullock's "Reopening the Big Sky" plan, and as of right now things are going according to plan.

"If we're seeing zero tests come back positive, and we don't see it in the city or in the wastewater. That's fantastic. That's fantastic data. That's what we're seeing right now," said Eric Merchant, Lewis and Clark county's Disease Control and Prevention Administrator.

Alternatively, if a wastewater test comes back showing the virus is present, it gives the county an idea of how to proceed as well.

"If we do start to see it, then we can make that decision. 'Hey, it's important that we draw back right now, because we're starting to see this disease,' and it's just one of many indicators," said Merchant.

Other indicators, or criteria, that need to be met for the county to progress in line with phase two include, hospital's ability to manage COVID-19 cases without additional resources, no sufficient increase in cases, and enough staff to test for COVID-19, to name a few. The city of Helena has sent in three samples and two have returned, showing that COVID-19 is not present in the wastewater, however, that's just half of the data.

Currently, Helena is the only city in Lewis and Clark county that has received results from testing, equating to approximately 46% of all residents in Lewis and Clark county. Another issue both the city of Helena and Lewis and Clark county could see down the line is funding. Right now, the wastewater tests are covered through a grant until the end of May, but after that each test will cost $1200. Though Helena hasn't budgeted for the tests yet, if the data coming back is worth it, Mark Fitzwater, Supervisor for Helena's Wastewater Treatment plant, said they'll find the money for it, but tests might not be conducted at the same rate they're being done now.

“If we think it's worthwhile, we will continue with the samples, and we'll find the money somehow," said Fitzwater. "As far as sampling weekly, we're not sure yet.”

Merchant also stressed that the data being collected by the test is not hyper-focused, meaning the county is simply using it as a barometer for COVID-19's presence in the community.

“There's too many factors there to really use it as a laser strategy, like focus in on something. We're using it more as that population indicator, overall public health tool for evaluating this,” said Merchant. "We want this to be transparent and for folks to understand it, and this is a really easy way to put the data out there to say, this testing process of the city's wastewater plants, it demonstrates that we have it here or we don't, and that's a pretty powerful message for the community as well, that peace of mind."