Initiative expands sewage water testing for COVID-19 in Metro Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The city announced an initiative Tuesday to sample sewage water weekly to detect COVID-19 outbreaks in nine Metro Detroit ZIP codes where the virus is on the rise.

The initiative, which will test samples from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, builds off a partnership that Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority forged in 2017 with Michigan State University's College of Engineering. The latest round of the multi-phase project is funded with an $800,000 grant from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Detroit Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair demonstrates the correct way to wear a mask during a daily briefing on the status of COVID-19 at the Detroit Police Safety Headquarters in Detroit, June 4, 2020.

Health officials said monitoring wastewater can provide an early indication of the disease in the community, about one to two weeks before critical illnesses occur. The expanded testing is expected to get underway immediately.

Dr. John Norton, director of energy and research for GLWA, said sewage detection has been a powerful tool in the past to address polio and track alcohol and illicit drug usage, which directs intervention policies for regions.

"Geographically, we'd be able to detect it within a few hours through the fecal matter before you would start to actually feel sick," said Norton, adding that not everyone gets tested for the virus, but "everyone poops and pees."

"Testing and reporting time on the medical side can be quite a few days worth of lag," he said. "This is a silly way of doing it, but the fact is since we can provide some advance notice to the public health community, that’s very interesting and very potentially a very powerful tool."

The partnership was initiated in November 2017 between MSU's engineering research team and Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department.  Back then, officials said Tuesday, the team proved the hypothesis that untreated sewage coming from homes and businesses could help provide advance notice of virus outbreaks.

This spring, the water authority funded a second phase of the sewage monitoring, with focus on the COVID-19 outbreak. Those outcomes have been published in two scientific journals, Science Direct and the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

State funding this fall provides for expanded virus detection to include COVID-19 and officials plan to immediately target nine critical ZIP codes where the spread has been ongoing:

  • In Detroit - 48235 in northwest, 48210 in southwest, and 48205 on the east side
  • 48076 in Southfield 
  • 48237 in Oak Park
  • 48322 in West Bloomfield Township
  • 48021 in Eastpointe
  • 48310 in Sterling Heights
  • 48044 in Macomb Township

For the analysis, researchers will collect about 50 gallons of sewage samples each week from the communities. 

"What’s unique of our team here is that we’re not just collecting samples and testing, we’re also developing this model so that we can actually predict accurately," said Irene Xagoraraki, an associate professor who leads the MSU engineering research team. 

Denise Fair, chief public health office for Detroit, said she's pleased that the city's positivity rate for COVID-19 is 8.2%, far below surrounding counties. 

Fair said the pilot is a "groundbreaking" tool to address neighborhoods where the virus continues to trend upwards.

"The data, and science, drive our decision-making," Fair said. "We can use this information to reach out to residents and businesses in those areas to reinforce our messaging with regard to testing, quarantine protocols, contact tracing, and even assistance for businesses who need help in developing a plan to operate while keeping their employees safe during this pandemic."

Last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched broad tracking wastewater surveillance in 37 counties throughout Michigan, in both the upper and lower peninsulas. There are approximately 270 testing sites, which include wastewater treatment plants and congregate facilities, such as jails, long-term care centers, K-12 schools, universities, child care facilities and group homes.

The Detroit and southeast Michigan initiative specifically focuses on COVID-19 detection in the nine ZIP codes.

Another $267,000 in funding from the water authority will provide continuous monitoring of the three sewer interceptors that feed GLWA's Water Resource Recovery Facility in Detroit. These interceptors collect untreated wastewater from the city of Detroit, and large portions of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

"We use parameters that are routinely collected at the wastewater utility and we incorporate our measurements in order to create a model that really works and has been proven," Xagoraraki said. "Hopefully, this will continue for years to come."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_