Michigan researchers get $5.3M to expand COVID-19 wastewater monitoring

Philip Szorny, an environmental engineer and Anthony Shourds, a soil erosion and

Philip Szorny, an environmental engineer and Anthony Shourds, a soil erosion and sedimentation control Specialist , both with the University of Michigan’s Environment Health & Safety, collect sewage samples behind U-M’s Campus Safety Services Building in August 2020, before students move-in. EH&S worked closely with the School of Public Health researchers on this project.

University of Michigan researchers surveying wastewater systems for SARS-COV-2 will be able to increase testing sites and continue monitoring until 2023 after receiving more than $5 million from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The funding, announced this week, is part of MDHHS’s $49 million to support 19 projects to continue COVID-19 wastewater surveillance and implement COVID-19 variant strain testing of wastewater.

The grants include $2.5 million for Krista Wigginton, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and Kevin Bakker, an assistant research scientist at U-M’s School of Public Health; and $2.7 million for Chuanwu Xi, a professor of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health.

"This new grant will allow us to monitor more frequently and for an extended period of time the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, including a few variant strains, in sewage from several buildings off campus in addition to sites on campus that we have been monitoring,” Xi said. "Data collected will allow us to evaluate the situation of COVID-19 spread in the community and the effectiveness of vaccination and other public health interventions. Our data will be shared in a real-time fashion with our county and state health departments and the university COVID-19 response committees to assist the development of data-driven public health policies.”

Xi’s research team also includes Rick Neitzel, Tim Dvonch, Marisa Eisenberg, Peter Song and Al Franzblau, all professors at U-M’s School of Public Health. Xi said project partners included the U-M Environment, Health & Safety Department, the City of Ann Arbor and Hamburg Township. Xi’s team has focused on testing wastewater at the U-M’s Ann Arbor campus and was instrumental in setting additional public health interventions last year with an initial support from the U-M Provost’s Office and SPH Dean’s Office.

Wiggington said the grant will allow them to add three new members to her team and to expand their current work with the wastewater treatment systems in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to Jackson and Flint. It will also allow them to analyze daily, or near daily, influent and solid samples to monitor for the prevalence of COVID within these communities.

Data from the sample analysis will be shared to a statewide dashboard, but the team is also partnering with local health departments in Washtenaw, Geneessee and Jackson counties to inform their local responses to COVID.

"We’re excited to participate in this important project for the State of Michigan to continue fighting COVID-19,” Wiggington said. "Wastewater-based epidemiology has shown to be a valuable tool to inform public health officials of case levels and infection trends in a community.”

Additionally, Wiggington’s work with Stanford University has informed the methodology for the solid sampling procedure and analysis that they will conduct with these four communities in Michigan. Her work has shown that solid sampling can offer a more precise detection of COVID in wastewater.

Both projects are part of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and MDHHS’ COVID-19 wastewater coordinated surveillance network established in the fall of 2020 as a pilot project. The SARS-CoV-2 Epidemiology - Wastewater Evaluation and Reporting Network will continue utilizing locally coordinated projects to conduct surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 virus shed into Michigan public sewer systems.

According to MDHHS, the pilot project included 3,204 wastewater sample tests between April and December with 62.5% of the samples being positive.

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