FGCU professor uses wastewater to track COVID-19

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne Writer: Drew Hill
Published: Updated:
wastewater study
Credit: WINK News

An FGCU professor is using his expertise to track the virus. He’s studying wastewater before it’s recycled and what he found could give us a clue of where we are in our fight against COVID-19.

Scott Michael is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at FGCU. He monitored COVID-19 found in wastewater from six different facilities over the span of six months. That signaled that we aren’t out of the woods yet.

The pandemic remains important to many people, including FGCU’S Scott Michael. “I started a project last year looking at the wastewater system in Lee County, and so there are six different treatment plants,” he said.

In a contract with Lee County, Michael and his team looked at wastewater samples to measure traces of COVID-19.

“So we would sample before the wastewater got processed in order to so yeah, it was raw, raw runoff and human sewage,” said Michael.

They tracked samples from December 2020 to June 2021. “We were able to detect COVID of residual genetic material at every one of the six wastewater treatment plants around Lee County,” he said.

wastewater sample graph
Graph of findings from wastewater study Credit: WINK News

The team was even able to discover when COVID peaked from their samples: between February and March of 2021 and in May of 2021. And even when we saw decreases, they still found COVID-19 residual.

“That really worried me because I think that the wastewater testing is a truly independent measure of what COVID is doing in the community. And it was clear to me from our data, that it was not gone from the community,” said Michael.

When comparing their findings to cases, hospitalizations, deaths and even rainfall and traffic, they couldn’t find any significant correlation.

“Something is driving the peaks and the ebbs in those virus levels in the wastewater and it’s not any of the normal culprits. So there’s something else going on with this virus that we don’t quite understand,” the professor said.

While there are still things we’re learning about COVID-19, Michael encourages people to take precautions. “I wouldn’t take a lot of chances with this. I would get vaccinated,” he said.

While the contract with the county has ended, Michael would be interested in starting his research again. He believes this type of research will be beneficial in the future to determine if the coronavirus is gone.

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