Written By: Angelie Roche
On Oct. 16, officials in St. Mary’s County, notified residents that they found elevated levels of viral particles containing COVID-19 in the county’s wastewater. These particles, which are shed by individuals who have the virus, can provide an indication of COVID-19 spread in the area, according to Dr. Meena Brewster, a St. Mary’s County Health Department officer. The samples were collected from a variety of wastewater treatment facilities throughout the county through a collaborative initiative between St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission and the St. Mary’s County Health Department.
Beginning in May of 2020, officials began monitoring the wastewater of St. Mary’s County after considering a plethora of scientific evidence proving that the water can contain measurable particles of the coronavirus, which can indicate a spike in cases. This sort of testing has many benefits; it is a way to collect a non-biased sample of the whole community, rather than just those who receive tests. Wastewater monitoring is not new —it gained worldwide attention in the 1990s, when it was used to track the spread of the polio virus in efforts to eradicate the life-threatening condition. Though a vaccine had already been widely distributed at that point, the poliovirus was able to spread without its noticeable symptoms, allowing it to spread undetected in many communities where it was thought to have been extinct. Officials, then, used infection information gained from wastewater samples to vaccinate entire communities whose samples indicated the presence of the poliovirus.
While the wastewater testing used now is similar to that of the 1990s, the current situation differs significantly. First, there is not a vaccine for COVID-19, so officials cannot respond to wastewater monitoring by vaccinating entire communities to prevent further spread. Additionally, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease while polio was spread mainly through feces, so scientists were surprised when they found that the coronavirus can be present in an infected person’s digestive tract, meaning that wastewater monitoring could be an indicator of the disease. According to a virological assessment of hospital patients which took place earlier this year, viral shedding present in infected people outlasts the presence of symptoms; in fact, the particles are excreted primarily during the “non-infective” stage for up to several weeks.
Many are wondering what the recent wastewater spike means for residents of St. Mary’s County and students of SMCM. At this point, the answer sounds all too familiar: all students must continue to take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With Halloween approaching, students may be tempted to attend parties or large gatherings, but recent spikes in COVID-19 indicate that individuals ought to be more cautious than ever, especially considering the recent results of the wastewater testing in St. Mary’s County. Though the SMCM COVID-19 Dashboard still continuously displays little to no positive cases on campus each week, it is still possible that the virus could be present but undetected. To ensure that no further spread occurs, students ought to continue to wear masks, wash their hands, monitor their symptoms, and follow the College’s COVID guidelines.