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The CDC wants state and local sewage systems tested for coronavirus

A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Edward R. Roybal campus in Atlanta, Georgia on April 23, 2020.

Tami Chappell | AFP | Getty Images

The federal government is teaming up with local health departments to begin testing sewage systems for the coronavirus in an effort to catch the virus before it spreads rapidly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

The CDC in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal government agencies will begin working with state, local, territorial and tribal health departments to collect data on the sewage samples, an effort they call the National Wastewater Surveillance System, or NWSS, according to CDC guidance updated on Monday. 

The goal: To find traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, that shed from people and traveled through the sewage system. 

While wastewater testing is not intended to replace clinical testing, it can help communities where Covid-19 tests are “underutilized or unavailable,” the CDC says. Wastewater testing could potentially have an enormous reach — 80% of U.S. households are connected to a municipal sewage system. 

Depending on the level of virus in the sewage, wastewater testing can also be a leading indicator of a worsening outbreak. People with Covid-19 who show symptoms and those who don’t can discard traces of the virus, allowing scientists to collect data on both types of infection, the CDC says. 

Sewage testing has been used to find other diseases, such as polio, and to determine the prevalence of opioid use in some U.S. communities. Some public health experts, including Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, have suggested utilizing sewage testing for Covid-19, saying it’s a cost-effective strategy to track the coronavirus and predict outbreaks. 

The CDC is not currently taking samples for testing but is searching for local partners to test and report the data to the agency’s NWSS portal. 

Some countries have already started testing wastewater for the coronavirus, including Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands, and water utilities in cities across the U.S. said they would conduct the testing, STAT News reported in late May

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