Mar 18, 2024 - News

Your poop is tracking public health threats in Virginia — for now

Illustrated collage of a pipe system schematic with images of a wastewater pipe, overlaid with rippling concintric circles.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Your poop might not be flagging some of Virginia's public health threats past 2027.

The big picture: That's when $3.7 million in CDC funding for Virginia's wastewater testing program expires, health department spokesperson Cheryle Rodriguez told Axios.

  • The program is being used in more than 30 sites statewide, including in Richmond and Henrico, as an early warning sign for the spread of COVID, the flu and RSV. None existed in Virginia before the pandemic.

Why it matters: The technology can spot the viruses in people's feces before they've been tested or show symptoms.

Zoom in: The Virginia Department of Health briefly used it to test for monkeypox, but the funding for that ended last September, Rodriguez said.

  • Limited funding has also prevented VDH from starting on its five-year plan to track fentanyl via sewage systems, like San Francisco did this year.
  • Virginia's proposed budget sets aside $400,000 in 2025 for a one-year pilot program to do it in three locations statewide.
  • Richmond was at the center of the fatal overdose crisis in Virginia in 2022, with nearly 132 deaths per 100,000 residents, per VDH data.

Between the lines: Wastewater surveillance remains an imperfect patchwork system covering about half of Virginia's households.

  • Up to 200 and 10,000 properties aren't represented in Richmond and Henrico, respectively, according to estimations from local VDH.

What they're saying: The U.S. risks repeating the same mistakes that hampered the initial COVID response if the money for wastewater surveillance runs out, said David Larsen, an environmental epidemiologist at Syracuse University.

  • "The pandemic, to me, highlighted our inadequate investment in infectious disease surveillance systems," Larsen, who helped expand wastewater surveillance across New York state, told Axios. "We need to learn from that and invest in them."

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