Lawrence partnering with KU, KDHE on Wastewater Treatment Plant COVID-19 study

Maureen BradyCity, Municipal Services and Operations

As part of a study contracted through the University of Kansas School of Engineering, the City of Lawrence has initiated weekly sampling of the influent wastewater at both wastewater treatment plants. This specialized study focuses on testing concentrations of aspects of COVID-19 in the wastewater.  The City has partnered with the Lawrence Douglas County Public Health Department and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to share data and collaborate on the study.

This study began in April when both of Lawrence’s wastewater plants were sampled as part of a preliminary KDHE study. This study demonstrated that viral RNA (genetic material) can be concentrated and detected from influent wastewater using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) diagnostic method.

Detecting the genetic material in wastewater is indicative of COVID-19 being present and may give local health officials knowledge of how widespread the virus is in their community, allowing them to take proactive measures to help mitigate its spread. While drinking water is not part of this ongoing study, it is important to note that disinfection by all Kansas public water suppliers inactivates the virus and drinking water remains safe for consumption.

“The wastewater study is a great example of how our community is collaborating and using every tool in our toolbox to plan and prepare for fighting coronavirus,” said Sonia Jordan, Director of Informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “This study will help us make informed decisions moving forward, including related to staffing, bandwidth and surge capacity.”

Dr. Belinda Sturm, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at KU, is communicating emerging research to the City of Lawrence and local and state health departments. A recent study from New Haven, Connecticut, showed that COVID-19 concentrations in wastewater preceded new cases identified in health clinics by one week, and the wastewater concentrations correlated with new case counts. The result is a sort of “canary in a coalmine” alert that lets people know when cases are likely to increase.

“We hope to bring this early-detection to our community,” Sturm said. “If the community responds quickly when wastewater concentrations spike, we can reduce transmission greatly with one-week lead times.”

The City of Lawrence is the only community in the state that is currently testing for COVID-19 RNA in their influent wastewater on a weekly basis. The City of Lawrence, KU, and health agency partners will work to evaluate the COVID prevalence data as an early warning indicator.

“The City is thrilled to be working with Dr. Belinda Sturm of KU on this project,” Municipal Services & Operations Director Dave Wagner said. “She is a national wastewater expert from our own community that brings up-to-date research and knowledge to this project. She is staying current on this internationally-emerging surveillance method and making adjustments to implement the latest reporting techniques.”

Initial data is being assessed against daily case counts and moving averages to capture potential trends with active cases. Research has demonstrated that persons with positive cases shed the virus through excrements in larger concentrations during the initial 10 days of infection, but continue to shed decreasing amounts up to 21 days or longer.

“Part of the challenge with the study will be identifying trends with the data relative to actual case data, since there is a lag from the time a positive case is recorded with the county relative to the onset of symptoms and/or testing dates due to inconsistencies in laboratory reporting times,” Municipal Services & Operations General Manager of Environment, Health and Science Trevor Flynn said. “As we continue to learn more throughout this study, we will be working closely with KU on some statistical approaches to assess the data as an informative public health metric.”

The City of Lawrence has developed a data dashboard that displays the weekly COVID-19 wastewater testing results relative to available county case data, in collaboration with LDC Public Health. See the results on our website: lawrenceks.org/covid-wastewater

The graph below shows the RNA detections from the Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant (blue) and the Wakarusa Wastewater Treatment Plant (orange), compared to the 14-day rolling average of new cases per day (green). Case count data is courtesy of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health.

Figure 1. City of Lawrence average COVID-N2 RNA genetic data collected weekly from the influent wastewater at the City’s wastewater treatment plants plotted against the average new cases per day calculated from a 14-day rolling average.  The 14-day rolling average captures a broader period to help with trend analysis, capturing uncertainties with symptom onset and/or testing date relative to actual case reporting dates.

Contact: Josh Carson, Public Information Officer, Municipal Services & Operations – jcarson@lawrenceks.org | 785-832-7822