UK researchers test wastewater in nursing homes for COVID-19

Posted at 5:20 PM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 17:50:49-05

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — A research team at the University of Kentucky has spent the past year collecting wastewater samples at six nursing homes in Kentucky, including three in Lexington.

It's part of a research project at the university, which is funded by a $1.3 million CDC grant.

"So this is my daily routine," research assistant Blazan Mijatovic said as he walked through the process Wednesday morning.

Pumps inside facility sewers help researchers collect 100 milliliters of wastewater every 20 minutes over a 24-hour period.

Once a sample of wastewater is collected, it's put on ice and heads off to a lab for testing.

Researchers are able to get the test results back the same day, so they can let the nursing homes know if and how much COVID-19 is detected very quickly.

Lead researcher Scott Berry said Wednesday was the final day of data collection for this research project.

"I think overall the project overall has been successful," Berry said. "I think we've learned a lot."

Now, Berry and his team will study the data to see if wastewater testing is, in fact, an effective early warning system for nursing homes.

"We're measuring the amount of virus that we see in the wastewater and then we're comparing that to the clinical cases that the nursing home sees and by looking at those two sets of data we're seeing if one predicts the other," Berry said.

If proven as a valid method, Berry said it could be a quicker way to alert nursing homes of COVID surges in the future.

"By testing the wastewater, we're able to measure material from all residents in one measurement and so rather than testing each person individually, we can make one measurement that gives us a sense of the status within the nursing home," Berry said.

Currently, Berry said the team is working on writing grants to continue this research. They hope to expand to testing for other viruses, like the flu. They also hope it can be used in third-world countries where individual testing isn't as readily available.