KFL&A Public Health unveils COVID-19 wastewater test results dashboard

KFL&A Public Health has unveiled a long-awaited dashboard for COVID-19 wastewater test results done in the City of Kingston. Those results are expected to assist Public Health officials in tracking the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. The samples taken for the testing have been accumulating since sampling began in the spring of last year, and some of the results are being released now, with more to come, says KFL&A Public Health.

“KFL&A Public Health is pleased to partner with Utilities Kingston and Queen’s University to present results for COVID-19 testing in the City of Kingston’s wastewater,” says KFL&A Public Health in unveiling the dashboard. “There has been a real ‘all-hands-on-deck’ call across Queen’s University with the COVID-19 epidemic and this wastewater surveillance initiative has provided an opportunity for wastewater researchers in the BWRC to contribute to the community response,” says Stephen Brown,  Associate Professor with the Dept. of Chemistry and School of Environmental Studies, and co-director of the Queen’s WSI program. 

The Public Health unit says that identifying COVID-19 in the City’s wastewater may help identify COVID-19 in the community. “People with active COVID-19 infection shed the virus in their stool before they are symptomatic, when they are symptomatic, or if they are asymptomatic,” KFL&A Public Health explains. “Testing wastewater may identify the presence of the virus in asymptomatic people before traditional testing.”

The Queen’s University’s Beaty Water Research Centre (BWRC) and Utilities Kingston are participating in the Wastewater Surveillance Initiative, which is sponsored by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), in order to implement wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 virus. “We are pleased to work with Queen’s University to analyze these samples and develop a baseline for our community. Samples are collected at the start of the wastewater treatment process, at both the Ravensview and Cataraqui Bay wastewater treatment plants, contributing to a shared goal of protecting public health from COVID-19,” says Jim Keech, President and CEO of Utilities Kingston.

BWRC are currently testing two samples per week from each wastewater treatment plant serving the City of Kingston (Cataraqui Bay and Ravensview), including samples that have been archived since last spring. They are currently not testing for COVID-19 variants, says KFL&A Public Health.

Wastewater epidemiology, a relatively new field of research, studies the chemical and biological contents of human waste for clues about several sociological and health issues, including disease prevalence and transmission. “It relies on the fact that all people excrete waste and that the majority of our waste is flushed away to wastewater treatment plants or septic systems,” says KFL&A Public Health. “By analyzing the wastewater at the facilities, we may be able to detect information about the resident population as a whole—that may otherwise be unknown—to enable earlier or better public health action.”

“The COVID-19 challenge has brought new emphasis on Wastewater-based epidemiology, and this initiative will provide Queen’s University with an opportunity to establish a foothold in this important the emerging research area and prime us to meet future challenges,” says Sarah Jane Payne, an Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering, and co-director of the WSI at Queen’s.

KFL&A Public Health explains that the wastewater testing for COVID-19 is meant to complement, not replace, individual testing. “In the KFL&A region, we track the number of daily new cases of COVID-19, the number of active cases, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 in workplaces, schools, and specialized care facilities like retirement homes. Part of the challenges of living with COVID-19 in our communities is the fact that people may be infected with the virus (called SARS-CoV-2) but do not experience symptoms, and, unknowingly, may spread the virus more widely.”

“We are unable to precisely estimate the number of people who may have COVID-19, or who do not get tested, either because they do not have symptoms or choose not to,” KFL&A explains further. “We do know that people with COVID-19 shed the virus in their stool whether they are symptomatic or not, and even before they are symptomatic. For the City of Kingston, the water we flush or send down the drain ends up at our wastewater treatment plants. Measuring COVID-19 in wastewater is one method that helps us estimate if the number of cases for city residents are increasing or decreasing according to trends in virus counts in our wastewater. Knowing this can allow Public Health to respond accordingly, whether increasing public messaging and protective policies, or by relaxing restrictions when all measures of surveillance indicate that the risk of transmissions is lower.”

KFL&A Public Health says that several things have been learned from Kingston’s testing already. “From what we have learned so far, the counts in wastewater were consistently low in February, with small increases found in March. The Queen’s University BWRC team had also collected some samples in 2020, and they archived them in a freezer,” says KFL&A Public Health. “They will be analyzing those samples to give us a picture of what was happening in the community last year. Those results will be analyzed in the next few weeks. It is hoped that by comparing the historic levels of the virus in wastewater with current case counts in Kingston, we will be able to uncover patterns to help us use this assessment method as a predictive tool.”

“The ‘counts per ml’ are the number of copies of the target RNA found in a milliliter (ml) of raw sewage from the whole community served by the specific wastewater treatment facility,” says KFL&A Public Health in explaining the results to date. “We are primarily concerned with the trends in the data — for example, are the counts increasing, stable, or decreasing — to help us interpret what is happening in the community.”

The COVID-19 wastewater test results dashboard can be found on the KFL&A Public Health site here.

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