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Experts: COVID-19 detection in Omaha wastewater can help pandemic response

City officials are turning to wastewater to help detect the next virus spike.
Published: May. 16, 2022 at 10:16 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - As COVID-19 cases are slowly rising again, local experts are using wastewater to help detect when our communities could see another spike.

On Monday, the Douglas County Health Department reported more than 300 new cases of COVID-19. The seven-day rolling average of cases is now at 97, the highest it’s been since late February.

Local experts say they are again concerned by the trend.

“Now, I’ll be very quick to emphasize this is fairly low compared to what we just saw a few months ago with the omicron spike, but nonetheless, it’s going in the wrong direction and is undoubtedly an underestimate,” says Dr. Mark Rupp, an infectious disease expert at Nebraska Medicine.

Right now, 72 patients are in the hospitals with COVID-19, 13 of which are in the ICU, and three of them are on ventilators.

“Now, if these cases were just mild, flu-like illness, people taking them in stride, that would be fine,” Rupp adds. “But we’re seeing increasing the number of folks that are coming into the hospital, and some of these cases are severe and then we are increasingly seeing people that continue to have those long lingering symptoms that can be so troublesome, the cognitive deficits, the lack of energy, malaise, fatigue.”

Rupp says there are more COVID-19 out there than is being reported. He says people likely aren’t getting tested, or they’re using at-home tests and not reporting positive results to the health department.

How do they know this? By testing wastewater.

“When people get sick, they shed the virus in the GI tract and so we’ll see that in the wastewater, and now it’s pretty common to monitor the amount of virus in the wastewater and be able to predict from that what’s going on in the community,” Rupp says.

The wastewater surveillance is a partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

“It does seem to be a bit of an early warning system for virus circulating in the community, and we have seen a small uptick in the value that’s being reported in the state wastewater surveillance program,” he adds.

The report, which tested wastewater between December and May, showed that in more populated areas, like Douglas and Lancaster counties, helped detect COVID spikes shortly before the number of reported cases begins to rise.

In more rural areas, the wastewater detected COVID spikes that were not being reported.

Rupp says having this tool is incredibly beneficial, and it can help communities like Omaha determine the next steps in terms of our COVID-19 pandemic responses.

“It’s a good harbinger or good warning of what’s going on in the community, it backs up what we’re seeing anecdotally in our own lab.”

Right now, Dr. Rupp says it’s best for those who are eligible to get their COVID-19 booster shots to help prevent serious illness from the virus.

“When you’re in an indoor, shared, crowded environment, I think people should not be shy about popping on a mask and doing a little bit to protect themselves and to protect others.”

Experts like Rupp expect that cases will continue to rise over the next few weeks, but that there’s no prediction of what could happen next in the pandemic. Right now, he says experts are focusing on new potential variants.

“There are a couple of strains being described out of South Africa, BA4 and BA5, we are starting to see a few of those strains in the U.S., they’re indications are that they’re more transmissible, so I think it warrants close watching.”

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