Aug 29, 2022 - COVID

What Washingtonians can learn about diseases from our poop

Illustration of a hand with a medical glove on holding a sewer cap up to examine
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

When polio recently turned up in New York, health officials were able to track the virus from county to county using wastewater testing — the same kind they'd been using for COVID-19.

  • But in Washington state, officials aren't using sewage to try to detect viruses like polio — at least, not yet.

Driving the news: Officials with the state Department of Health told Axios Seattle that they are limiting their use of wastewater testing to COVID-19 right now.

  • That's largely because the state's COVID wastewater testing is paid for using federal grants from the CDC, which cover testing for COVID-19 and foodborne illnesses, but not other viruses.

Even so, state officials are exploring ways to add monkeypox testing to the mix, a health department spokesperson wrote in an email.

The big picture: While there was some level of wastewater surveillance in the U.S. pre-pandemic, COVID supercharged it by prompting the creation of the National Wastewater Surveillance System, Axios' Tina Reed and Arielle Dreher report.

  • Several universities have since banded together to build their own networks of wastewater testing, such as Stanford-based WastewaterSCAN, which has expanded its work to other viruses, including influenza and now, monkeypox.

Zoom in: In Washington, public health officials say wastewater testing has helped them track COVID-19 infection trends and spikes even as more people turn to at-home tests, which have obscured case counts due to a lack of public reporting.

  • Testing sewage also gives officials advance warning of when disease is spreading, since virus levels in wastewater tend to rise several days before an uptick in reported cases.

What's next: While there are no immediate plans to test wastewater for polio, "this may change as the situation evolves," state health department spokesperson Shelby Anderson wrote in an email to Axios.

  • The department also wants to expand COVID-19 wastewater testing to more counties, as only 10 of 39 are doing it right now.
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