Administrative Executive Editor
“If you have COVID, it’s possible that you can actually shed virus particles in your fecal matter. So what that means is: as you were in the bathroom, you flush the toilet, you’re actually depositing a little bit of COVID virus into the sewage water,” said Dr. Jesse Marcum, a Keene State College assistant professor in the Chemistry department.
KSC Safety & Occupational Health Applied Science (SOHAS) professor and KSC COVID-19 project team leader Dr. Wayne Hartz wrote a research grant proposal and sent it to KSC President Dr. Melinda Treadwell after his colleague from the SOHAS department suggested considering wastewater sampling for SARS CoV-2 virus. After the proposal got approved, the Keene Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance (KWES) Project team was formed in August of 2020.
“If you can look for it effectively in the wastewater, you could actually see the numbers rising, approximately one week or so, before you start seeing lots of test numbers go up,” according to Marcum. He also explained the goal of the project by saying, “In principle, if everything works perfectly, [you] see an outbreak before you see it in other ways, because it allows you to catch pre-symptomatic people who might otherwise not be getting tested.” Marcum is the last addition to the project team. Marcum said that the waste-water based COVID-19 testing is happening all over the country and the world.
Marcum, who is in his first year working at KSC, is having both professional and social experiences through the project. He said, “From a social perspective, it’s actually been really nice getting to work in a group of professionals and scientists on a collaborative project. It’s been a good way for me to get to understand the culture here, the different types of people who are here [and] the different strengths in school.”
Along with Marcum and Hartz, the team consists of public health assistant professor Dr. Jeanelle Boyer, Biology professor Dr. Loren Launen, SOHAS assistant professor Dr. Christopher Rennix, construction clerk of the works Colin Burdick from Physical Plant from KSC, public works director/emergency management director Kürt Blomquist, lab manager Mary Ley, industrial pretreatment coordinator Eric Swope, and operation manager of drinking water and wastes water facilities Aaron Costa from the Wastewater Treatment Plant in the city of Keene.
Hartz said, “We said, ‘Listen, we’ll make the pitch to get the financing for all the lab analysis. Is it possible you could actually do the water sampling?’ and they agreed to that.” Hartz said that KSC put some of its money from CARES Act Funding toward the wastewater sampling project.
Blomquist said, “[The city’s] contribution right now has primarily been in kind services meaning my staff has been going out doing the sampling and then shipped down to the laboratory.”
Blomquist explained the process, “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my staff from the wastewater treatment laboratory go out and there are two manholes that were selected as part of the project. One of the manholes is located on Keene State College campus. That particular manhole collects all the wastewater from all of the on-campus facilities… [and] from the neighborhoods off campus to the North. Then, we have selected another point which is down towards our Martell Court pump station… that basically represents the community as a whole sampling point.” He added, “Two folks go out– takes a couple hours, so they have sampling equipment that they’ve set up, and they place it adjacent to the components down into the manhole into the wastewater stream.”
The equipment then collects a sample every eight-to-12 minutes for a 24-hour period. Then, the “composite sample”, combining all the individual samples over the 24-hour period, is taken back to be tested. “They process [it], they put it together in the correct packaging, and then they ship it off to the lab,” said Blomquist. The sample is sent to SiREM lab in Knoxville, Tennessee. Blomquist said, “We do have a laboratory but this is testing that we do not have the capability for.”
Marcum said that University of New Hampshire (UNH) has analyzed a couple of Keene’s samples throughout the year to get a sense for whether the SiREM is giving them similar numbers.
Rennix, who is also an epidemiologist, said, “The wastewater study is an attempt to monitor the SARS CoV-2 virus in the water as a predictor for cases to show up within about 10 days.” He added, “We look for relationships and trends to see if we can, for instance, see the wastewater going up. [We’d then] tell the college and the college starts to put out more information like ‘please wear your mask’, ‘please wash your hands’, trying to get people to avoid becoming a [positive COVID-19] case. Right now, we’re really worried about the variants.”
Rennix said that the variant might be arriving. He explained, “[The] UK variant has been detected in the water in cases at UNH and they are having a heck-of-a-surge right now. There are over 140 cases at UNH. We’ve been testing [Keene’s] wastewater for the variant. We haven’t found that yet. So this is the level without the variant. We’re wondering what it will be with the variant when it finally arrives. We think it might be arriving as the cases are going back up.”
KSC students Maxwell Duff and Brady Wickes are helping Rennix publish a paper about the wastewater project and the trend analysis.
Rennix publishes a report every week of the wastewater results, then it gets distributed to the college, the hospital and the city. He said, “We meet every Tuesday with the hospital and the city to… make sure that we know what they’re going through, and they know what we’re going through so we can coordinate our response.”
Hartz described the importance of the study by saying, “I think [the wastewater study] becomes a tool, just like the infection rate, to help assess ‘are we going up or down?’ The rate of infection and the wastewater combined, it’s like blood pressure and your heart rate combined.”
Rennix said the wastewater project is helping KSC build a relationship with the city and the hospital. He added, “It’s also helping the college put forth an image that we care about the impact we have on this city, that we really don’t want our students causing a major outbreak in town. The last thing is, it’s informing us how well our students are doing as far as complying with masking and distancing.”
The timeline of the project is scheduled to end in June. Hartz said, “The city thinks it’s useful enough, they’ve already said, ‘Hey, we could do this again next year? Could you do this till October?’”
Blomquist said, “[KSC team is] planning on terminating that activity. I still believe, from my risk management ‘hat’ and also Public Works director’s ‘hat’, that it’s good to continue [this work] for a period of time. So, I’m looking at my current operating budget, that I oversee here in the city, to see what kind of funding I may have available to continue the program I’m thinking through probably to the first of October… That’s my goal and something I’m working on. I don’t have the answer yet but what I would like to do is continue to work after June 1 and the city will look to pay for the laboratory work.”
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