Best Out of Waste (Water)
On March 10, Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Dr. Michael, Turner gave a lecture in the Knott Auditorium regarding waste water testing. Turner has helped with testing since the university reopened last semester. Waste water testing refers to testing water for COVID-19, which includes water from toilets, sinks and showers.
Turner admitted that he originally thought that the waste water would go into a corresponding vat for each building, and from the vat, the water would be tested. This is not the case. What happens is a manhole is opened and a cup is dropped down, collects some water and is brought back up. This is all the water that is tested at a time. If a person who is positive is not using the facilities around that time, the virus will not show up. The test only shows the virus from people who have recently used the facilities.
In order to test the maximum number of people, the Maryland Environmental Services collects the water at high traffic times. For example, fewer people will be using the facilities at 6 a.m. than 10 a.m., thus 6 a.m. would not be one of the times water is collected.
Residential buildings with their own pipes and manholes are tested as well as the ARCC and the Physical Plant. However, places that are used for isolation are not tested as the school knows that those who are in isolation are positive, like the Annex. This also includes places that use the same pipes as the isolation areas.
After the sample is collected, it is pasteurized. This is where they “cook” the samples leaving only the part that will be tested. Then it is labeled and sent off to CosmosID to be tested.
Tuner used the example of a copy machine to describe the test. “If you put something in the copy machine, it will show up. If you put nothing in it, nothing will show up.” So if there is a gene, it will show up. If not, only light.”
Some residence buildings have experienced more spikes than others. For example, Sheridan has experienced many surges over the last semester; however, the Seminary has experienced no spikes.
“They live in a very closed bubble… They are very quarantined,” Turner stated in an interview.
When asked if there were major spikes after events like Halloween, the election and the first weekends on campus, Turner responded “I think you hit every major spike we have had.” He noticed positives in buildings like Rooney which then would go away. He explained that these positives did not show up anywhere else on campus, “so these were visitors who tested positive.”
Turner shared that Environmental Health & Safety Officer and Lab Manager, William Wood, introduced the idea to the Mount Safety Team. Both Wood and Turner stated that it would be too expensive to test the entire student body with nasal swabs every few days, which is why Wood brought up the idea.
“It was in large part because of Carrie Beth Ant and Frederick Health,” Wood stated in an interview. “Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Wood also added that WWT is “not infallible, but it works.” He described that the biggest disadvantage is not being able to “get everyone accurately” and that they “don’t know enough yet.”
Visiting Assistant Professor in the science department, Dr. Eric Sakowski, stated that he and Turner were “both involved in identifying the virus in the waste water.” The two are trying to see if it is possible to test for COVID-19 on campus.
Sakowski mentioned another disadvantage which is that they don’t know how many positive cases there are. But according to him, the biggest advantage was early detection.
Several students attended the lecture. Katilyn Gaskins (C’23) described WWT as “very important, even more so after Dr. Turner pointed out how every time there was a spike in positive tests in the water, the Mount was more quick to contain the spread and quickly bring the numbers back down.”
Nick DiNunzio (C’21) said he thinks “the [WWT] is a great idea!”
Natalie Granato-Guerrero (C’23) mentioned how she didn’t know it was a thing before the lecture, but found it to be informative.
There’s a new strain of COVID-19 which makes a person infectious as soon as they get it, and they are at their most contagious as soon as the symptoms show up. There is also a very high number of people with few or no symptoms. This makes early detection crucial. Hopefully, the Mount is able to contain the spread on campus.