Health officials are launching a statewide system to monitor COVID-19 and its variants in wastewater that will provide early warnings of a potential outbreak on a county-by-county basis.
“Data generated through sampling wastewater will help public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement Monday.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is detectable in human waste nearly from the onset of infection, according to officials. Symptoms may not appear for three to five days.
“Wastewater testing has been used successfully in the past for early detection of diseases, such as polio,” Ezike said. “Measuring the virus levels in untreated wastewater can serve as an early indicator of increasing infections in a community and can inform our public health actions.”
IDPH along with the Discovery Partners Institute will implement the program in phases, starting with sampling in Carroll, Cass, Franklin, Fulton, Jefferson, Lawrence, Livingston, Macon, Montgomery and Vermilion counties. The program will expand to 35 counties by midsummer, and to all 102 counties by the end of the year.
Wastewater monitoring involves treatment plant workers collecting 8-ounce samples twice a week, which will be shipped overnight for laboratory analysis. According to officials, a rapid, automated sample processing and analysis system will be built to measure SARS-CoV-2 levels, which will indicate if COVID-19 infections are rising or falling in the community served by the treatment plant.
“Wastewater analysis is an ideal method for understanding COVID-19 trends in communities, complementing individual testing and providing an early indicator of outbreaks,” said Dr. Venkat Venkatakrishnan, DPI director of research, in a statement. “The testing is sensitive enough to detect a handful of COVID-19 cases in a population of tens of thousands yet is completely anonymous.”
Collected samples will be further analyzed at Argonne National Laboratory and IDPH labs using genetic sequencing to track COVID-19 variants.
IDPH is providing $5.5 million to build and support the monitoring system for the next year.