North Carolina launches wastewater monitoring network in collaboration with Noble lab, others

Dr. Rachel Noble, a researcher with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, processes a wastewater sample at her lab in Morehead City as part of the state’s newly launched N.C. Wastewater Monitoring Network. (Contributed photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — North Carolina has launched a statewide wastewater monitoring network that is tracking COVID-19 trends through the use of wastewater sampling, and a local research lab is playing a key role in the effort.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced May 21 it expanded the state’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard to include a new metric – wastewater monitoring. Since January 2021, NCDHHS said it has been testing wastewater samples to look for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s newly introduced National Wastewater Surveillance System.

The statewide program, known as the N.C. Wastewater Monitoring Network, is a collaborative effort between wastewater utilities, public health departments and researchers, including the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences’ Dr. Rachel Noble.

Based in Morehead City, Dr. Noble heads a microbiology research lab that has a particular focus on water quality. She was awarded nearly $2 millionthrough the N.C. Policy Collaboratory last year to research how monitoring wastewater could be a useful tool in the fight against COVID-19.

Currently, the state is collecting information from 11 wastewater systems involved in the monitoring network, including sites in Beaufort and Newport, as well as in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greenville, Wilmington and a few other locations. Dr. Noble said her lab is responsible for processing and analyzing all the samples collected from the sites each week.

North Carolina launches wastewater monitoring network in collaboration with Noble lab, others

Dr. Rachel Noble’s lab in Morehead City processes and analyzes wastewater samples collected from 11 sites throughout the state. (Contributed photo)

“Those samples make their way across the state the middle of every week and get shipped to my laboratory and we do all of the sample processing,” she said. “…We’ve pushed the envelope a little bit on our ability to process the samples quickly, so we’re really trying to get the samples (processed) in a really streamlined way and then report the data out quickly because we think that that’s valuable information.”

One of the main ways the wastewater data are being used is to track the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community over time. A person infected with COVID-19 sheds the virus in their waste, which can be detected through sampling. As researchers have found, this happens regardless of whether or not the infected person has symptoms or seeks a test confirming their illness.

Used in conjunction with clinical testing information, Dr. Noble said the wastewater data can help show a more complete picture of the spread of COVID-19.

At all 11 sites currently involved in the monitoring program, Dr. Noble said there has been a decrease in the concentration of viral particles recently, in line with state and nationwide trends showing significantly fewer COVID-19 cases now than in early 2021.

“From a very, very general perspective, we’re doing a lot better than we were in January,” she said. “We’re in a plateau. We have a very low amount of virus in our wastewater and we have a very low number of cases being recorded.”

That holds true for Beaufort and Newport’s wastewater systems, where Dr. Noble said she has seen non-detectable concentrations of the virus since about early April.

“That’s not to say that there’s not one single person in Beaufort or Newport that is infected, that’s to say whatever levels exist in the wastewater system are really, really low and we’re not measuring them at the moment,” she said.

As pandemic recovery continues, Dr. Noble said the wastewater data will continue to be used to track COVID-19 trends. If a location were to experience a sudden spike of virus in the wastewater, Dr. Noble said public health officials would be able to see it and respond immediately.

North Carolina launches wastewater monitoring network in collaboration with Noble lab, others

This dashboard on the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ website shows COVID-19 trends in wastewater data at 11 locations throughout the state involved in the Wastewater Monitoring Network. It shows all 11 sites are experiencing a plateau in the concentration of COVID-19 in the wastewater. (NCDHHS graphic)

In the next month or so, the state plans to expand the surveillance program from the 11 initial sites to around 20 locations, Dr. Noble said. She noted she thinks one thing that sets North Carolina’s program apart from those of other states is that it includes several rural systems rather than just the larger cities.

“We believe that we are actually bringing to the table wastewater analysis from some of the most rural towns that are being represented as part of the national program,” she said.    

NCDHHS and Dr. Noble acknowledged limitations of the wastewater surveillance program, like the fact around 40% of North Carolinians use septic systems for wastewater. Additionally, researchers are still investigating exactly how long SARS-CoV-2 shedding occurs and what proportion of people with COVID-19 shed the virus in their waste.

For the foreseeable future, Dr. Noble said she’ll focus on building relationships with communities and growing the program to include as many locations as possible. Beyond COVID-19, she hopes to use wastewater monitoring to track other diseases, as well.

“In the future, it’s our hope that we’re not only going to be working on COVID-19-related things, we want to build a wastewater surveillance system that’s useful for all kinds of things, like influenza and potentially other viruses, and use it as a way to give our public health departments valuable information about what is going on in our communities,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to see that out to fruition in the next year or two.”

The COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, plus more information about the surveillance network, can be found at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard/wastewater-monitoring.

 

Contact Elise Clouser at elise@thenewstimes.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.

(6) comments

DeadBolt

hahahahahahahahah, human waste is a profit! SOMETHING STINKS HERE! And he main player in the picture is ...... BLOATFORT! I TOLD YOU ALL, BLOATFORT WILL NOT BE OUT STUPIDEDED!

David Collins

More unneeded expense to what end ?

drewski

Ahem... actually a trip to the Dr often involves a trip to the bathroom. Japan has been a leader in smart toilet technology.

Many medical conditions can be detected early via tests on waste. Diabetes for instance.

On a larger scale as is this program virus particles in waste can give pretty clear indications of infectious disease levels and trends. Like wise using similar wastewater testing you could find say drug labs cranking out meth, or fentanyl?

I just don't understand why folks would poo poo this article. ( yes I said it)

noitall

That holds true for Beaufort and Newport’s wastewater systems, where Dr. Noble said "she has seen non-detectable concentrations of the virus since about early April" WOWEE! Nobel Prize stuff. Sunlight UV rays) kill the covid in a matter of seconds. But to actually see them and then admit it it in public is remarkable. Two million well spent. Now can she catch them? Is there a bag limit? Catch and release would probably work best - no needless paper trail.

David Collins

So She has seen NON DETECTABLE traces of the virus since April . Hummm , if it is non detectable just how is She able to detect it ? Sounds a bit flim-flamish to me . Money money money !

Actually read about this technique months ago and it does give an idea of the level of infection . The same thing can be accomplished in the existing waste water labs that are required by the state . This is just duplication of efforts at a high price that is unnecessary . While nice to know so are a plethora of other things nice to know . We need to pick our battles .

the secret life of man

The Shevans park splashpad is wasting 4000 gallons of wastewater on to 16th st beach is not spam.

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