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Early warning system: How Houston is using wastewater to identify COVID-19 hot spots

When experts first realized last spring that coronavirus shows up in people’s poop, Houston health experts saw an opportunity to track the spread of the virus.

HOUSTON — Some of Houston’s smartest people have been studying poop to help monitor the spread of COVID-19.

They are part of an innovative project designed to identify COVID-19 hot spots, including cases in people with no symptoms.

When CDC experts revealed last spring that coronavirus shows up in feces, Houston health experts saw the opportunity for another tool to slow the spread and save lives.

The Houston Health Department teamed up with scientists from Rice and Baylor College of Medicine to develop a system that tracks the spread of the virus through wastewater.

In May, they began testing preprocessed wastewater from all 39 treatment plants citywide.

The city’s results are then sent to labs at Rice and Baylor for confirmation.

They break down the results by ZIP code and send strike teams to those high-risk neighborhoods to intervene. 

“Ultimately, the goal is an early warning system that allows the health department to identify problem areas sooner and put measures in place to slow the spread," Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

“Tracking the virus in wastewater provides an unbiased estimate of the extent of the virus compared with relying solely on clinical testing,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University. “The hope is to continue using this method to help inform public health decisions regarding interventions to control the virus.”

Houston’s top health authority Dr. David Persse said early detection of cases at the Star of Hope’s men’s shelter was one example of the project’s success. He said they detected several cases through the wastewater in that neighborhood, so all Star of Hope residents were tested and some were relocated.

When later testing showed the virus had returned to the shelter, they took action to again control the spread.

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The health department will soon start testing wastewater at long-term care facilities.

Houston’s recent wastewater testing shows virus levels are dropping citywide, which mirrors the lower positivity rate.

The technology is being used all over the world, but Dr. Persse said Houston has one of the more robust testing programs thanks to their early start.

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