COVID-19 down the drain: What wastewater can tell us about our pandemic future

Feb 2, 2022

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin researchers don’t have a crystal ball to see where the COVID-19 pandemic is heading. What they do have: Bottles and bottles of sewage.

For more than a year now, scientists in the Badger State have been tracking the SARS-CoV-2 virus through wastewater. That’s possible because infected people don’t just breathe the virus out through their airways — they also flush it down the toilet in their feces.

And while a swab up the nose may still be the best way to see if a single person is sick, researchers said the sewage data offers important clues to the pandemic’s wider trends. 

“Wastewater monitoring can give you a bigger picture,” said Becca Fahney, an environmental toxicologist at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene. “It can tell you more of what's going on in your community without testing individual people.”

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