CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa testing wastewater to catch residence hall COVID clusters

The pilot program could be a 'great tool to help protect our students'

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Research into the link be
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Research into the link between high blood pressure and COVID-19 is ongoing. (NIAID/TNS)

IOWA CITY — Given COVID testing can be cumbersome, uncomfortable, and time consuming for busy and often low-risk college students, the University of Iowa this spring is trying a different approach to stopping campus cluster infections that’s less invasive — at least for students.

UI Facilities Management, in partnership with its new utilities operator, is piloting a program testing wastewater for evidence of COVID infections — instead of noses. For the pilot, UI is sampling pipes beneath two residence halls with easier access points — Mayflower, on the northeast side of campus along Dubuque Street; and Daum, which is nearer central campus along Clinton Street.

As research has shown COVID-infected individuals shed particles of the virus through their feces before becoming symptomatic, the university is hopeful wastewater testing could “serve as a potential early warning for detecting COVID-19 clusters among the student population.”

The pilot is a collaboration between UI Facilities Management and Engie North America — the university’s new private utilities operator. Student Health, University Housing and Dining, the College of Public Health, and State Hygienic Lab also are helping on the project — which began this week with initial baseline sample collections, according to UI Campus Health Offcier Dan Fick.

“We’re working on getting baselines and then starting to track and see, over time, what sort of viral loads we’re seeing in the wastewater,” Fick said.

If samples show a heightened presence of the novel coronavirus in a UI residence hall, a sample of students from the building will be given the chance to test for COVID-19.

“This follow-up testing will be voluntary, and students who participate will be offered both a nasal antigen test and a serology antibody test to determine if they have had a past COVID-19 infection,” according to UI communication about the pilot program. “All students who test positive will follow existing protocols for self-isolation and quarantine.”

UI is not the first campus to try the technique and Fick said if it proves successful, the university could continue to employ the strategy down the road — catching sickness before it can spread — even as more people become vaccinated.

“If we were able to do it before students are symptomatic, that would be a great tool to help protect our students and to protect the campus,” Fick said, acknowledging, “It’s going to take us a few months to see if this works.”

If it does, the campus will look into expanding the program to other residence halls.

“It’s sort of a competing race between testing and the vaccine,” Fick said. “Given the vaccine seems to be coming slower than we’d hoped, you do have some time to get this developed to help us have another tool to keep the campus safe.”

Unlike at Iowa State, UI has not required testing for students moving into its residence halls. It’s offered COVID testing for those with symptoms or confirmed close contacts — but the campus has sparsely used proactive randomized testing.

UI asks its community members to self-report positive tests and work with Johnson County Public Health on its contact tracing efforts.

Fick said although the university hopes to take weekly samples of wastewater for the novel viral monitoring, the forecast arctic temperatures in the coming days could delay the work.

“We made pause next week when it’s 10 below zero,” Fick said. “People actually have to go through manholes and down into the sewer and tap into the line.

“So we’re going to probably postpone it a little bit potentially if the weather’s too cold and it’s too hard to get down to the manholes. But otherwise we plan on doing it weekly.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.