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ISU partners with IDHW to do wastewater surveillance testing for COVID-19

POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI) – What you’re flushing down the drain is providing researchers at Idaho State University with the latest on COVID-19 in the Gem State.

Recently, Julia Martin, associate professor of microbiology and biochemistry, started testing samples of wastewater collected at five water treatment facilities in East Idaho for the virus at her lab on ISU’s Pocatello campus.

“Wastewater testing can help detect community-level disease outbreaks and may prove useful as an important early warning signal to help doctors and hospitals prepare for pockets of virus resurgence,” Martin said. “Unlike individual testing, wastewater testing captures virus shed by infected people, including those who are infected but don’t develop disease symptoms. Additionally, it’s a relatively low-budget method to monitor public health and is particularly important for places where individual tests may not be readily available.”

Each week, samples from the sites in Bannock, Bingham, Blaine, Caribou and Minidoka counties are analyzed by Emily Baergen, biology specialist at Idaho State and ISU graduate. Once she has the samples, Baergen isolates the virus from the wastewater, breaks open the virus to get it to release its genetic material, and then quantifies how much virus is in the sample. The data she collects is then reported to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Bureau of Laboratories, and trends in the data are posted on the Idaho Division of Public Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

“I love collaborating with other labs throughout Idaho, and it’s exciting to contribute to the nationwide wastewater monitoring system,” Baergen said. “The COVID pandemic was a driving force for creating a nationwide wastewater monitoring system, and it’s exciting to be part of a project that has so much potential to help prevent future pandemics.”

Baergen holds a master’s in clinical laboratory science and a bachelor’s in biology from Idaho State. Before working with Martin, Baergen worked in research laboratories and healthcare-focused labs.

“What prepared me for working in the wastewater testing lab – and all of the labs I’ve worked in since graduating – was the experience I was able to get from working in research labs as an undergraduate. ISU has so many opportunities for undergrads to get great experience working in research labs, whether it’s a paid job, independent research credits, or just volunteering. Not all universities have opportunities like this available to undergrads.”

Looking ahead, Martin hopes to onboard more wastewater treatment facilities around Idaho for testing and sees the uses for this method of collecting data expanding to other fields.

“Wastewater testing has been used to track other pathogens like polio and influenza A for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed interest in this type of testing for other important health-related items,” Martin said. “In the future, wastewater testing may be used for tracking antibiotic resistance in bacteria, knowing what types of chemicals pass through humans and into wastewater, detecting the prevalence of illicit drugs like opioids in a community, and more. The data could help decision-makers supply targeted resources to communities in need.”

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