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Could sewage help predict virus outbreaks? Detroit project to study potential

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DETROIT – A revamped research project in Detroit will seek to find out if the sewer system can help predict coming virus outbreaks.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and Michigan State University (MSU) began a virus research project in November 2017 to determine if viruses can be detected in the city’s sewer collection system.

This may be another mechanism for public health agencies, including the Detroit Health Department (DHD), to predict virus outbreaks. The original project was to detect known viruses at the time and now, with funding and technical expertise from the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), has evolved to trace the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Detroit has been at the forefront of testing and providing the community resources during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “This project with MSU [launched in 2017] again shows that we have a forward-thinking and collaborative mentality that puts the community first.”

Related: What’s with the steam? Your questions about Detroit’s steamy sewers answered

The MSU study’s findings show that viruses can be detected in untreated sewage, including coronaviruses, and when that data is joined with healthcare data they can further trace outbreaks. In fact, the researchers took the data from the sewage samples and looked at county health data for the same timeframe. They discovered that viruses were apparent in the sewer collection system approximately 1-2 weeks prior to seeing increases in reported data at health departments for those same viruses.

“We are excited by the efforts of MSU and the implications this work may have in supporting our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Denise Fair, the City of Detroit Chief Public Health Officer. “I am encouraged and applaud any effort that seeks to enhance the health and wellbeing of our community.”

The city says that once sewage enters the city’s collection pipe, it is not encountered by the general public. Most basement backups are either stormwater or the household’s own untreated sewage. The treatment process uses chlorine to kill viruses in sewage at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in southwest Detroit operated by GLWA. DWSD, GLWA and health experts always advise precautions when encountering raw fecal matter and sewage.

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