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CU tested wastewater to detect COVID outbreaks; The same system could detect other viruses, too

Wastewater testing, on college campuses and beyond, could detect influenza and norovirus to help keep people safe before they spread illnesses.

BOULDER, Colo. — On a campus known for its beauty, this story focuses on one of the least beautiful things in Boulder.

Our story takes us underground with the man in charge of catching signs of COVID in waste.

"It just sits in the stream that’s flowing past," Cresten Mansfeldt said as he pointed at a tube going down into a sewer on the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) campus. "It’s just a continuous flow that’s pumping up through the manhole itself."

Mansfeldt is an assistant professor at CU in the Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering Department. Since last September, he’s been leading a team that uses black boxes all around campus to test the wastewater.

Nearly nine months and 5,000 tests later, the wastewater monitoring system can be credited with helping keep students healthy by working to discover COVID outbreaks on campus before they spread. If the system detects an increased level of the virus in waste, increased testing can be done in specific dorms to isolate the sick before they infect others.

CU uses this system in addition to regular saliva COVID testing and contact tracing to help detect cases.

"I think it’s where necessity really drove innovation," said Mansfeldt. "Specifically, it was really designed for the SARS COV-2 epidemic, but it has a pretty wide range of information that it’s able to detect."

Recently, the system has detected low levels of the virus in wastewater, mirroring the ups and downs of spikes in Colorado. Now it will be used beyond the pandemic.

The black boxes can detect the flu and other viruses that make students sick.

"Initially it was targeting the SARS COV-2, but we have expanded to start looking at influenza, norovirus, and other types of pathogenic information that’s moving through the system," said Mansfeldt. "This is something that we could use in different contexts to start tackling other aspects that have plagued humanity for a long period of time, like influenza."

This can go well beyond college campuses. The system is relatively easy to set up and can be used to monitor which communities in a city are showing signs of an emerging virus outbreak. From there, health departments can target testing in specific areas without using a lot of resources.

So every time we flush, the black boxes on campus help keep others healthy.

How beautiful is that?

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