Sampling wastewater to predict outbreaks in COVID-19 is being done all over the U.S.

Everything that gets flushed down the toilet eventually ends up a wastewater treatment plant. And it’s at many plants that wastewater samples are being collected to determine where outbreaks of COVID-19 are likely to pop up.

Dr. Ian Pepper is an environmental science professor at the University of Arizona. He’s part of a nationwide program that analyzes COVID in sewage, and he’s been doing it in Jacksonville and other cities since the beginning of the pandemic.

He explained how traces of COVID in wastewater predicts what determines if a municipality could experience an outbreak.

“You will see the virus in the wastewater seven to 10 days before people develop symptoms, so it’s a leading indicator, which can be very useful in alerting county health departments that an outbreak is on the way,” Pepper said.

Notably, Orange County recently reported a 600% increase in COVID-19 detected in its wastewater samples.


“It tells me you are getting a lot more shedding of the virus into the wastewater, and that can only come from more infected people,” Pepper said.

Last year, JEA took part in the COVID wastewater detection sampling program but stopped after several months. JEA issued a statement that reads:

“At the time, there were a lot of unknowns about COVID, there were long lines for COVID testing, and it could take a week or more to get the results back. It was thought that sewage surveillance could potentially provide an early warning system for trends in cases. The reason JEA ceased sampling the sewage system almost a year ago was because the results were inconclusive, meaning that results from UofA tests indicated COVID indicators were below detection levels. Since then there has been increased availability for individual COVID tests with results provided on the same day.”

Pepper says based on his analysis of the JEA samples he received, there were a lot of sediments in the samples that made it harder to determine the level of COVID in the wastewater.


Researchers and health officials across the U.S. and in Europe started tracking the course of community outbreaks of the new coronavirus last year by studying the waste flushed from bathrooms.

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