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CBJ tests wastewater for prevalence of COVID-19

October 1, 2020 – News

The City and Borough of Juneau is testing the community’s wastewater for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Sewage surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 will provide another means of understanding the prevalence of COVID-19 in Juneau, and how that prevalence changes over time. The data generated by this sampling is intended to help CBJ’s Emergency Operations Center and public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in Juneau.

“Testing wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19 is an active area of research both nationally and internationally, and the science on how to interpret and use the data is still evolving. But, sewage testing has been successfully used as a method for early detection of other diseases, like polio,” CBJ Utilities Engineer Lori Sowa said. “Data from wastewater testing is not meant to replace our existing methods of tracking COVID-19 in the community; rather it is meant to complement them. We are hopeful the information gathered through this effort will provide another tool to assist our community in making public health decisions.”

“Wastewater,” also referred to as “sewage,” includes water from household/building use. Water from toilets, showers, and sinks is considered wastewater. People infected with COVID-19 often shed the virus through sneezes and coughs, but people also shed the virus in their feces. Those feces go down the toilet and – with about 80% of Juneau homes and businesses connected to the city’s sewer system – that water will likely end up at one of three CBJ wastewater treatment plants.

Currently, samples are taken twice a week from the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant near the airport, Juneau-Douglas Wastewater Treatment Plant in Thane, and Auke Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. The samples are sent to a commercial lab every Tuesday and results are returned on Fridays if there are no delays. So far, results indicate the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in local wastewater, which confirms there are people in Juneau infected with COVID-19, and these levels will be tracked over time to understand trends. How CBJ will present the data is still in development. This effort is funded with federal CARES Act money through a $75,000 Juneau Assembly emergency appropriation.

Learn more about testing wastewater for COVID-19 on this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage.

For more information, contact CBJ Utilities Engineer Lori Sowa at 586-0875 or Lori.Sowa@juneau.org.