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Residents of Lyons Hall report for surveillance testing after COVID-19 genetic material found in wastewater

| Monday, September 21, 2020

After wastewater samples suggested the presence of COVID-19 in Lyons Hall Saturday, all residents in the dorm were required to report to surveillance testing Sunday as a precautionary measure, according to an email obtained by The Observer.

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
All residents of Lyons Hall were asked to report for surveillance testing after wastewater tests suggested the presence of COVID-19 genetic material.

In the past week, Notre Dame began testing wastewater of a select number of dorms for the presence of COVID-19 genetic material. This is part of an ongoing initiative led by associate professor in the college of engineering Kyle Bibby to develop methods of virus detection in wastewater.

Most people infected with the virus, regardless of symptoms, excrete an inactivated form of COVID-19 in their stool, Bibby said. By measuring wastewater, researchers can collect data from an aggregate community sample to potentially provide an early warning to the presence of COVID-19 within a population.

“As we all know there have been challenges with administering enough tests for early detection to avoid outbreaks, so this is a possible tool that’s being explored,” he said.

Bibby received a Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation to begin collecting samples and running tests in the region, and the University administration supported the installation of a continuous autosampler at the main sewage outtake on campus in July.

The continuous autosampler collects samples of the wastewater every 30 minutes to two hours. Bibby’s lab analyzes composites of samples twice a week by running digital droplet PCR to detect small portions of viral RNA.

With the new technology, Bibby said his team is still working to consider complicating factors in interpreting the data.

“One question would be if somebody was recovered from the virus, but never knew they had it, they might still be excreting it in their stool,” Bibby said.

While the data collected from the autosampler for the past two months has not yet been published, Bibby said the levels tended to trend with the number of observed cases the COVID-19 Response Unit reported.

“That’s a good thing — that means they’re probably not missing huge numbers of cases,” he said.

A number of other universities across the country have been testing wastewater as well to supplement surveillance testing, contact tracing and other precautionary measures to combat COVID-19. In the end of Aug., the University of Arizona detected a potential coronavirus outbreak by monitoring wastewater. After testing all residents, two asymptomatic students tested positive.

Bibby’s lab studies microbiology and water quality with an emphasis on detecting pathogens in water to estimate risks and create technologies to remove pathogens, so he said it was a natural fit to begin working on this project studying wastewater in terms of COVID-19.

Bibby emphasized the wastewater itself is unlikely to be a risk because the viral RNA excreted in stool appears to be inactivated.

University Provost Marie Lynn Miranda said the administration made the decision to test all of the residents in Lyons Hall “out of an abundance of caution.” A positive wastewater reading for the hall does not necessarily indicate a large number of active cases, Miranda said, but in order to better understand what the levels mean for Bibby’s research and for residents, mass testing ensued.

“By going in for surveillance testing, the women of Lyons Hall are helping us identify potential cases within Lyons,” she said. “They are also helping to advance science.”

Editor’s note: Alysa Guffey contributed to this report.

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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a member of the class of 2021 majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and is a former ND News Editor for The Observer.

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