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Florida will use wastewater to track coronavirus cases

A coronavirus screening site at the villages
University of Florida Health
Florida will be able to use the data to decide how to allocate resources like mobile testing clinics.

An expert said communities could use the data to predict trends in cases.

Florida will soon have a new tool in monitoring coronavirus cases.

The state is part of a new national program that will help communities track and predict COVID-19 cases through sewage. Florida received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the project.

The results will provide communities and large facilities with information about coronavirus caseloads, said Amy Kirby, program lead for the CDC's wastewater surveillance program.

The sewage from office buildings and schools is not as informative — as children and those who work in offices tend to use the restroom at home, Kirby said. But the data from places like university dorms and prisons might lend more information.

"We've seen that be really successfully used for universities, where they're monitoring outbreaks in their dormitory, so they can catch those outbreaks, when it's only one, two or three cases and be able to move in and implement controls very quickly to keep them from growing,” she said. “And we're hoping to replicate that success with correctional facilities and nursing homes.

The results of the wastewater tests can serve as early warning signals that cases might increase, she said.

"So we can see trends through wastewater testing, on average, about four to six days before we see those same trends in things like case reporting and hospitalizations,” Kirby said. “And although four to six days doesn't sound like a lot of time, for COVID, that is actually quite a bit of time to make a difference."

In that time, Kirby said, the community could implement changes to help turn cases around — such as making testing available, and sending notices to social distance and wear masks.

“Wastewater data can be a really good way to look at how all of the different communities in your state are doing and figure out who needs that support right now, and how we can use those resources most effectively.”

Most of all, the feedback will help communities have confidence that they know what’s going on in their area, she said.

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.