BOONE — After 163 COVID-19 cases in 15 residence hall clusters during the fall semester, Appalachian State is using a new tool to find the virus: wastewater.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testing wastewater can detect the presence of COVID-19 earlier than with established case surveillance — like taking a test.
Ece Karatan, the vice provost for research at the university, said wastewater testing allows surveillance of a large number of students on campus at a time.
Karatan said if the tests show positive signals for COVID-19, “we can target individual testing efforts, typical nasal swab type of tests to those dorms.”
“Hopefully we can contain any possible cases or outbreaks within those dormitories much earlier,” Karatan said. “It gives us an opportunity for an earlier response strategy — early detection strategy.”
The conversation to start using wastewater surveillance started in the fall semester after other schools like the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of North Carolina at Wilmington started the practice. A nearly $130,000 grant from the NC Policy Collaboratory allowed the university to start a pilot program designed to monitor six dorms —Cone, White, East, Mountaineer, Belk and Frank halls — to establish a sampling strategy.
The NC Policy Collaboratory facilitates and funds research related to the environmental and economic components of the management of the natural resources within the State of North Carolina and of new technologies for habitat, environmental, and water quality improvement,” according to its website.
“(The pilot) was quite successful because we were able to show that we are able to detect (COVID-19) in our dorm wastewater samples,” Karatan said.
According to App State spokesperson Megan Hayes, East Hall had a sample come back positive, and based on that information, the university arranged for targeted testing for the students who lived in that residence hall.
East Hall had 11 total cases in the fall semester.
Karatan said she is coordinating the wastewater testing efforts with Assistant Vice Chancellor Student Affairs Alex Howard and university facilities operations.
“A number of staff and faculty with the right expertise from the biology department are actually doing the samples and then the testing,” Karatan said.
To test the wastewater, researchers go to a wastewater stream from a specific residence hall and remove the manhole cover and physically extract the sample.
The container is then decontaminated on the outside and sent for testing. Karatan said she hopes they can start using water samplers to collect a sample during a 24-hour timeframe, which allows for a more representative sample.
Karatan said the wastewater is PCR test similar what's done with the nasal swabs that are used to find COVID-19.
The wastewater testing isn’t perfect as someone who is positive could still be missed if they are not shedding enough of the virus to show up in a sample.
“Dormitory wastewater sampling is a tool that’s part of the broader campus surveillance strategy,” Karatan said. “It’s not replacing any of the existing efforts, but it’s an addition to those efforts and it complements existing efforts. It’s powerful because it allows us to test a large number of individuals indirectly, but routinely.”
It’s “impossible” to identify any specific individual through wastewater testing, Karatan said.
Faculty and staff will start testing wastewater in February. Students who live on campus will begin to move back in between Jan. 28 and Jan. 31. Students are required to submit a negative COVID-19 test before moving back into the dorms.
The university will also randomly test 10 percent of the student population who live on campus. Testing frequency will be based on data, including voluntary surveillance testing events, contact tracing information and the wastewater surveillance.
Along with the negative test result, students will have to do a follow-up COVID-19 test once they move back to campus.
"This follow-up testing will occur between Feb. 1 and 6 and is designed to identify individuals who might have become infected between the time of their test required for move-in and their actual transition to campus," Hayes said in a statement.