Monitoring COVID-19 one flush at a time

COVID-19 test tube. (Photo from Pixabay)

Chatham-Kent is the latest municipality to have its sewage tested for traces of COVID-19.

An initiative involving the Ontario Ministry of Environment, the University of Windsor, Chatham-Kent Public Utilities Commission, and Chatham-Kent Public Health was announced on Monday morning.

The COVID-19 wastewater surveillance programs are used in many regions, such as Windsor-Essex and London, to help local public health units identify, monitor, and manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks. Jeff Moco of Chatham-Kent Public Health said increases in COVID-19 sewage markers can serve as an early warning indicator of increased community transmission. He added wastewater analysis trends can be used by public health officials to control and reduce the spread of the virus quicker with targeted testing and better infection control.

“I am excited to get access to this kind of data which will give us a very useful indicator of the baseline infection level in Chatham,” said Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby.

The wastewater surveillance program will focus on Chatham at first and could expand to other areas within Chatham-Kent.

“Chatham-Kent Public Utilities Commission is proud to be an active partner in the wastewater surveillance program, assisting CK Public Health with the collection of untreated wastewater that will be used for analysis,” said  Chatham-Kent Public Utilities Commission General Manager Tim Sunderland.

Local public health officials remind the public that the sewage surveillance program is another tool in the fight against COVID-19 and will not replace existing public health measures.

Wastewater sampling measures fragments of the virus called SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic fragments that causes COVID-19 infection. These RNA fragments can be shed in the feces of an infected person a few days before, and up to two to three weeks after a person begins to feel ill. However, these RNA fragments are not infectious. The risk of contracting COVID-19 from wastewater is considered to be low. Wastewater monitoring has been in use for years by scientists and public health officials as a non-invasive way to monitor how diseases are spread within communities.

Meantime, Chatham-Kent Public Health reported nine new cases of  COVID-19 on Monday and eight resolved cases. The total number of active cases is now 33. There are now five local residents in the Chatham hospital with the virus. That’s one more than on Friday. The only local outbreak is at an undisclosed workplace and it continues with three cases. The number of residents with a variant or related mutation of COVID-19 is up by about 10 from Friday to 188.

Walpole Island First Nation has nine cases and no new deaths.

Dr. Colby said he expects to start vaccinating local youth 12 and older beginning in June or July. Health Canada has approved the Pfizer vaccine for that age group. Colby hopes that will facilitate a decision to hold in-person classes at school come September.

The doctor also admitted he’s not a big fan of mixing second doses and will avoid it at all costs. Just over 40 per cent of the population 16 and older in Chatham-Kent has received at least one shot.