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UW Oshkosh to begin testing campus wastewater for evidence of COVID-19

Coronavirus

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – UW Oshkosh will begin testing residence hall wastewater for evidence of coronavirus.

The university says the move is another effort to catch potential on-campus outbreaks of COVID-19 before they happen.

Wastewater will be regularly tested at the Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) at the UW Oshkosh campus.

“Wastewater testing has historically been a useful tool for the early detection of other diseases,” says ERIC lab manager Carmen Thiel. “Monitoring the dorm wastewater on the UW Oshkosh campus for the presence of COVID-19 will assist University and Oshkosh area health officials in public health decision making, as COVID-19 can be shed in the feces of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.”

ERIC is a certified laboratory for both chemical and biological contaminants. The lab is already testing sewage at a handful of local healthcare facilities for the same purpose.

Wastewater testing of the 10 residence halls housing students this fall is planned to begin shortly. It’ll not only benefit the University, it could be a tool to prevent future spread in the Oshkosh community and beyond.

The results from the wastewater testing will be an additional piece of data available for UW Oshkosh officials keeping a close eye on the spread of COVID-19 among the UWO community.

“The results from the wastewater testing will be another way to monitor the prevalence of the virus on campus and, along with the daily testing, are another data point we can use to make decisions on how to continue to keep the UWO community safe,” says UWO Police Chief Kurt Leibold, chair of the Titans Return Implementation Team.

ERIC director and environmental engineering technology professor Greg Kleinheinz says these tests will give UWO officials a general idea of how much COVID-19 is in each residence hall, and swift action can then be taken if needed. It’s not a strategy to find specifics on the number of cases in a building.

“We’ll get a relative abundance—is it high, low, is there any?” Kleinheinz says. “That’ll help kind of drive what happens next. If all of a sudden after several tests with no virus, then a huge spike and a big number arrives, it won’t tell you how many people are infected but it can give you an indication that a number are, or just one or two.”

Tests will be run once or twice a week to start, according to Kleinheinz, but the plan is flexible moving forward. The ERIC lab will collect and process the samples, then send them off to a private lab for analysis. Results will be available within three days.

UW-Madison is also conducting these kinds of tests, Kleinheinz says.

The University of Arizona announced last month it likely prevented an outbreak in a residence hall thanks to an early red flag in wastewater and an immediate response of tests and quarantines. University of Idaho made a similar claim this week.

UW Oshkosh is reporting 240 active cases of COVID-19 on campus.

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