CLEVELAND — As omicron loosens its grip on Northeast Ohio and COVID-19 cases drop, we know a new variant could surface at any moment and quickly take its place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strengthening its ability to sound the alarm about an emerging threat much earlier. Each flush of our toilet is making it possible.
Right now, wastewater treatment facilities in 37 states, including Ohio, are playing a key role in tracking the prevalence of COVID-19.
"Shedding in feces starts very early after someone is infected. It's actually one of the first signs that we see of infection," said Dr. Amy Kirby, with the CDC.
For the first time, the CDC is collecting all that data and including it in its COVID-19 data tracker.
"The advantage of this CDC supported dashboard is it allows you to compare data across states directly," said Kirby.
Here's why having that information is important: Dr. David Margolius with MetroHealth said it will reveal community spikes sooner.
"COVID wastewater definitely will give you a heads-up earlier than other indicators like hospitalization rate, even testing because it's so dependent on the number of tests in the community," said Margolius.
That extra heads-up gives us all a chance to mask-up, social distance and rethink those high-risk plans.
"The more tools that we have, the safer we will all be," said Margolius.
Many states are sequencing wastewater samples to detect new strains of COVID-19.
"That is a very powerful method for tracking variants of concern," said Kirby.
In addition to giving us an early warning about a new wave that may be on the way, the CDC plans to use wastewater to keep tabs on outbreaks of other infectious diseases like E. coli, salmonella and the flu.
"I'm glad we're putting our faith in the poop. The sky's the limit in terms of how this can be used as a public health tool and that's a big deal," said Margolius.
What started as a grassroots effort to track COVID-19 cases in communities is now a national movement, as we enter what some call a new frontier of infectious disease.
"We've already seen examples of cities and counties using their wastewater testing to better understand the trajectory of a surge of infections. Now, more communities will have the opportunity to use this tool to help guide their public health decision making," said Kirby.
Four-hundred wastewater testing sites are already online nationwide, with 250 more slated to join them, bolstering the effort.
"The real power of this program will be more evident in the coming weeks, when hundreds more testing sites will start submitting data," said Kirby.