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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: 207106

Reported Deaths: 2757
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah40396614
Washington26812249
Marion23444323
Clackamas18953235
Lane13924164
Jackson11549146
Deschutes1002782
Umatilla860987
Linn562281
Yamhill478679
Klamath477878
Polk400556
Douglas389583
Malheur362063
Josephine361772
Benton326922
Jefferson237139
Coos216737
Columbia192329
Union150124
Wasco144530
Lincoln143421
Crook129223
Hood River121733
Morrow115516
Clatsop10609
Baker102315
Curry72011
Tillamook6604
Grant5517
Lake4688
Harney4339
Wallowa1945
Gilliam811
Sherman701
Wheeler351
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3810808

Reported Deaths: 63373
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles124790924459
Riverside3017994627
San Bernardino2993204850
San Diego2818863771
Orange2731055113
Santa Clara1201922190
Kern1107991404
Sacramento1078721737
Fresno1029711724
Alameda897561277
Ventura816611031
San Joaquin748081440
Contra Costa70770813
Stanislaus635351070
Tulare49802849
Monterey43842432
San Mateo42685581
San Francisco37275556
Santa Barbara34621455
Solano33762266
Merced32315479
Sonoma30957317
Imperial28855741
Placer23604300
Kings23202247
San Luis Obispo21448261
Madera16647245
Santa Cruz16246208
Marin14208230
Yolo14165212
Butte12668195
Shasta12630233
El Dorado10401116
Napa1002880
Sutter9666113
Yuba651251
San Benito610963
Lassen579925
Tehama573563
Nevada493175
Humboldt450849
Mendocino434050
Tuolumne421671
Amador374247
Lake356345
Glenn243327
Siskiyou239837
Colusa228818
Calaveras220856
Del Norte14588
Inyo143438
Mono12984
Plumas7376
Modoc5635
Mariposa4657
Trinity4236
Sierra1170
Alpine890
Unassigned320
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