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State to launch wastewater testing program to search for COVID variants

Predicting COVID surges before they happen is possible ― and it’s all through our waste.
Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 4:21 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 31, 2022 at 4:51 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Predicting COVID surges before they happen is possible ― and it’s all through our waste.

That’s why the state Health Department plans to launch a full-scale wastewater testing program this summer. Their early work has already detected the highly contagious Omicron sub-variant.

By collecting wastewater samples and then doing genome testing, health experts say they can detect variants in a community before surges happen.

“You can actually tell where or not there’s going to be a surge in cases typically four days before you see the rise of clinical cases,” said Dr. Priscilla Seabourn, APHL-CDC postdoctoral antimicrobial resistance fellow.

The DOH has been doing preliminary testing on Kauai and Oahu. Hawaii Island will be included and they hope to test Maui facilities in the future.

“On Kauai we detected BA.2 in wastewater before we found it in any human samples so that’s an exciting possibility,” said Dr. Edward Desmond, administrator for the State Laboratories Division.

On March 21, DOH announced the new Omicron sub-variant BA.2 had been detected on Kauai from the wastewater even though there were no cases yet.

Now more than a week later, BA.2 makes up 40% of the confirmed cases statewide.

Desmond says because of high vaccination rates and those who already got infected, he believes the community has a higher level of immunity.

“My own guess would be that we would see a modest surge, but nothing like we saw with the introduction of Omicron or the introduction of Delta,” said Desmond.

The Health Department says future testing could include prisons or other congregate living settings and mitigation strategies can be implemented before an outbreak.

Testing wastewater for COVID may sound like a dirty job, but Seabourn says it isn’t too foul.

“I can tell you right now the samples that we have received thus far are actually not that bad looking,” said Seabourn.

“They look like if you got a tea bag and dipped it in water and it’s a little bit brownish, but not too bad,” she added with a chuckle.

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