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Early results of Michigan COVID wastewater monitoring project show promise

Detection of virus appears to mirror documented spread

COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance map.
COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance map. (EGLE)

Early results from a Michigan project to monitor the levels of COVID-19 in wastewater show promising results.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) today posted preliminary results from four of the counties and one of the universities participating in a statewide monitoring program for the COVID-19 virus in wastewater.

From early October through the end of November, the virus was detected in 100 percent of 18 samples collected from one site in Genesee County, 100 percent of 25 samples from one site in Marquette County, and 100 percent of six samples from one site in Macomb County. At five sites within a single community in Manistee County, the virus was detected in 48.6 percent of the 35 samples collected.

In general, researchers said the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater from these sites initially appears to mirror documented transmission within individual sites and communities.

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Additionally, most sampling sites detected an increasing trend in the amount of virus present in samples collected from October through November.

Fifteen universities across the state are participating in the pilot project and using environmental surveillance of wastewater in their response to COVID-19 on campus. For instance, the University of Michigan is collecting samples from nine campus buildings and has had positive detections at seven of those sites this fall. Of those samples, 17.7 percent, or 39 of 220 samples, were positive for the virus.

“These initial results show promise for the field of COVID-19 wastewater monitoring in Michigan,” said Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health at MDHHS. “This project has demonstrated the feasibility of this laboratory method and local partnerships for a longer-term wastewater surveillance system. Participating laboratories continue to adjust methods to produce the most reliable results, and state and local public health agencies are beginning to interpret the data and incorporate the results into public health responses, when appropriate.”

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MDHHS said the data cannot currently be used to determine the total number of infected persons in a community or the percent of the population that is infected. Nineteen laboratories across the state of Michigan are participating in a standardized and coordinated network of COVID-19 wastewater monitoring systems.

Monitoring wastewater for the SARS-CoV-2 virus can provide an early warning sign for the presence of disease in a community. This virus is shed in human feces, including in people who are infected but not ill or have not yet become ill, and can be detected in wastewater up to seven days before infections lead to increases in clinical cases. A significant increase in the virus detected in wastewater over time can show that cases may be increasing in a community.

This type of surveillance can be used to detect possible outbreaks in communities and at congregate living facilities, such as college dorms and long-term care facilities, before clinical cases are identified. In the future, local public health agencies can use this wastewater surveillance data, along with corresponding clinical case data, to inform public health decisions to prevent further spread within a community.

Wastewater monitoring may also be of use in evaluating future immunization efforts. The state of Michigan is fortunate to have internationally recognized scientific leaders in this area in multiple institutions in the state.

This project is only conducting surveillance for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater and sewage, not drinking water. It is important to note that there is no risk of the SARS-CoV-2 virus being found in properly treated drinking water from either regulated drinking water treatment plants or private wells that are properly installed and maintained.

View the EGLE COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance map here.


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