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Human poop helping scientists study, track COVID-19

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With every flush of the toilet, hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon are helping scientists track and study COVID-19.

Posted: May 5, 2020 12:02 PM
Updated: May 5, 2020 12:05 PM

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, OR (KPTV) -- With every flush of the toilet, hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon are helping scientists track and study COVID-19.

“The dead viruses are actually shed by the body,” said Dr. Ken Williamson, the director research and innovation for Clean Water Services, which serves Washington County. “They are passed out of the body by the feces.”

That’s right, COVID-19’s genetic makeup can be detected in human waste.

The science is nothing new. Taking samples of wastewater is known as “sewer surveillance.” It’s been done for years and can tell scientists a lot about what’s happening in our bodies.

Now, researchers believe it’s going to be a powerful tool in the fight against the coronavirus.

“You can make an estimate of how many people in our community (have been infected with COVID-19) by taking one sample a week,” Williamson said.

Several cities and counties around Oregon are participating in studies to analyze the prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities, including Clean Water Services and the city of Albany.

Samples of untreated sewage are collected on a weekly basis and sent to Biobot, an MIT-based startup that churns out data about epidemiology in wastewater.

The company told FOX 12, “Biobot combines science with data, analytics and artificial intelligence that, at scale, can make predictions about public health trends, such as whether COVID-19 is likely to spread or decrease in counties across the country.”

“Our first sampling we had an estimated 1,500 number of cases,” said David Gilbey, the environmental services manager for the city of Albany’s public works department.

In Albany and Washington County, Biobot’s data is already giving government leaders a snapshot of the virus’ spread this past month through their communities.

Williamson said the wastewater proves that COVID-19 cases are still on the rise in Washington County.

“Over that month, the values went from near zero to very measurable values right now,” Williamson said.

In Washington County, researchers are not just casting a wide net but also zooming in to collect data on particular neighborhoods or even single facilities.

“What we’ve done is identified 15 areas of Washington County that we’re now sampling. They vary in size from a single retirement home up to an area about half the size of Beaverton,” Williamson said.

“We’re looking at particular institutions, a hospital, a retirement home, a wealthy neighborhood, a poor neighborhood, in industrial area, a food processing area,” Williamson added.

But sewage experts also stress that the data isn’t perfected yet, telling FOX 12 the models are evolving as does the science of interpreting the numbers.

“We’re really focused on longer-term trends then the instantaneous results,” Gilbey said.

But where there’s rapid research and dedication, there’s also hope that what we flush away can guide us through a pandemic.

“This is immensely satisfying and is feels important to be able to contribute in some way,” Williamson said.

Clean Water Services, in partnership with Oregon State University, was also recently awarded a grant from the National Science.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 153645

Reported Deaths: 2162
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah31669515
Washington20962209
Marion18246282
Clackamas13260170
Lane10096122
Jackson8198108
Umatilla760081
Deschutes589358
Yamhill373962
Linn354455
Malheur333658
Polk300642
Klamath276554
Douglas237551
Josephine228849
Benton227816
Jefferson193427
Coos138518
Union126919
Columbia123221
Wasco121825
Lincoln112320
Hood River106029
Morrow103613
Crook77118
Clatsop7706
Baker6397
Curry4106
Tillamook4062
Lake3746
Harney2726
Grant2221
Wallowa1424
Gilliam531
Sherman520
Wheeler221
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3543340

Reported Deaths: 49888
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles118349620069
Riverside2885413695
San Bernardino2850812651
Orange2598573848
San Diego2578053218
Santa Clara1095061747
Kern102137786
Fresno945841397
Sacramento926211446
Alameda797961200
Ventura76947805
San Joaquin662901042
Contra Costa61865653
Stanislaus55487937
Tulare47680731
Monterey42016323
San Mateo38552502
San Francisco33947394
Santa Barbara31630398
Solano29882161
Merced28749393
Sonoma27845295
Imperial26840587
Kings21916218
Placer19661231
San Luis Obispo19500221
Madera15325201
Santa Cruz14516174
Marin13083197
Yolo12689185
Shasta10950172
Butte10855158
El Dorado906995
Napa895068
Sutter881896
San Benito572358
Yuba571936
Lassen559419
Tehama506852
Tuolumne392959
Nevada390974
Mendocino379043
Amador343840
Humboldt313633
Lake310740
Glenn220723
Colusa212513
Calaveras190225
Siskiyou172013
Inyo127835
Mono12084
Del Norte9765
Plumas6516
Modoc4504
Mariposa3937
Trinity3525
Sierra990
Alpine800
Unassigned00
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