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Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Funds Wastewater Study to Stop Pandemic Spread

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by Patrick J. Paul

As the page is turned on 2020 and some hope exists with respect to a COVID-19 vaccine, Arizona finds itself with the dubious distinction of leading the nation in COVID-19 cases per 100,000.  Against this regrettable backdrop, Governor Ducey earlier today announced $500,000 in funding to support a wastewater testing pilot project to provide early detection of COVID-19 throughout Yuma County.

The pilot project is a partnership with Yuma County Public Health Services District, the University of Arizona, and the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and builds on the recent success of wastewater testing at University of Arizona dormitories in stopping the spread of COVID-19 last August.  The goal of the project is to help county officials better understand how wastewater testing can provide meaningful data on public health trends in Arizona’s rural counties.

The pilot program will collect wastewater samples twice a week across Yuma County and test for the presence of COVID-19. The University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture will analyze the samples at its Yuma lab, and share that data with public health officials.

Our past blogs (available here, here, and here) discussed this different, but effective approach to sewage testing as a means to slow the pandemic’s community spread. Tempe was one of the first U.S. cities to evaluate the connection between wastewater and COVID spread, but such studies had been previously employed across the globe to detect poliovirus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the use of illicit and prescription medications. So, why not deploy the same approach to detect COVID’s spread in its tracks?

An example of its effective use can be found in the University of Arizona’s testing as the school year commenced in August 2020. Analysis of wastewater from one dormitory demonstrated COVID-19’s presence.  Additional testing on Aug. 26th confirmed the results, and by early Aug. 26, antigen and PCR tests began at the dorm to identify infected individuals. Two asymptomatic students tested positive for COVID and were quarantined to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.  No BS — a result that helped allow the school year to continue at the moment without interruption to hundreds of students who could have been infected.

As the entire world continues to battle COVID’s mutations and spread in 2021, state and local governments may want to consider, as Governor Ducey has done here, supporting wastewater testing as a means to manage the pandemic’s community spread.