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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.

Confirmed Cases: 33291

Reported Deaths: 555
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah7257140
Marion474395
Washington458160
Umatilla299841
Clackamas244862
Malheur164230
Lane126717
Jackson11715
Deschutes85912
Yamhill76914
Jefferson5458
Polk53515
Linn52513
Morrow5096
Lincoln48113
Union4462
Benton3226
Wasco2963
Klamath2902
Hood River2520
Douglas2394
Clatsop2180
Josephine2032
Columbia1821
Coos1580
Baker952
Crook631
Tillamook530
Lake330
Wallowa321
Curry310
Sherman180
Harney120
Grant100
Gilliam80
Unassigned00
Wheeler00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 815654

Reported Deaths: 15782
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2692846551
Riverside591731216
San Bernardino54849952
Orange535571249
San Diego46985781
Kern32019369
Fresno28517390
Sacramento22438412
Alameda21323408
Santa Clara21294318
San Joaquin20357447
Contra Costa16702206
Stanislaus16496359
Tulare16071263
Ventura12812150
Imperial11877317
San Francisco11238101
Monterey1000872
San Mateo9950150
Santa Barbara9133113
Merced8939143
Kings766180
Sonoma7412122
Marin6727118
Solano641969
Madera455765
San Luis Obispo359729
Placer359645
Butte283744
Yolo282555
Santa Cruz23799
Sutter171711
Napa170513
San Benito134811
Yuba11588
El Dorado11444
Mendocino93918
Shasta88320
Lassen7410
Glenn5933
Tehama5795
Lake55911
Nevada5407
Colusa5326
Humboldt5098
Calaveras31714
Amador29616
Tuolumne2274
Inyo18815
Mono1662
Siskiyou1650
Del Norte1391
Mariposa762
Plumas500
Modoc270
Trinity160
Sierra60
Alpine20
Unassigned00
Medford
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Brookings
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