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Pharmacy Professor Contributes to Study on Effectiveness of Wastewater Surveillance on College Campuses

May 18, 2021

Wastewater monitoring is a promising tool for COVID-19 surveillance, according to a new paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Public Health. Researchers from the University of Rochester co-led this study, which synthesizes initial wastewater surveillance efforts at 25 colleges and universities from across the country, including St. John Fisher College.

Todd Camenisch

Todd Camenisch, professor and chair at Fisher’s Wegmans School of Pharmacy, served as co-author on the study. The study of colleges’ experiences with wastewater monitoring was co-led by Dr. Katrina Smith Korfmacher, professor and director of the Community Engagement Core of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Dr Sasha Harris-Lovett, postdoctoral fellow and external relations specialist for the Berkeley Water Center, at the University of California Berkeley.

Wastewater monitoring helped these colleges detect, contain and prevent wider spread of COVID-19 infection and the findings could provide a blueprint for other institutions – like nursing homes, workplaces, and jails – and inform community efforts to monitor for COVID and other infectious diseases.

People infected with COVID-19 may shed the virus even if they have no symptoms. Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not known to survive long in wastewater, genetic material from the virus can be detected in sewage for many days. Therefore, measuring the amount of this material in sewage can provide an early indicator of infection trends in the population.

Colleges and universities across the country, including Fisher and the Rochester Institute of Technology, integrated wastewater surveillance into their ongoing efforts to manage COVID-19 on their campuses.

The paper draws on the efforts of more than two dozen colleges to characterize, compare, and identify lessons learned during the fall 2020 academic period. The study found that a wide variety of approaches had been developed, ranging from sampling once a week to daily, and from one to over 50 sites on campus. These differences were shaped by institutions’ financial and technical resources, physical characteristics of their campus infrastructure, and decision support needs.

Despite these differences, all of the case study colleges found value in sampling wastewater and planned to continue through spring 2021 to help inform efforts to control COVID-19 on campus. Their experiences emphasized the need for multidisciplinary collaboration, iterative adaptation based on local experience, and sharing information between campuses. Based on these insights, the authors propose a framework for design, implementation, and evaluation of campus wastewater surveillance systems that can help other colleges plan wastewater surveillance programs for the long run.

“I was struck by the key role of collaboration in all of these efforts. In most places, the initial focus was on the technical challenges, sensitivity of methods and implementing the monitoring program,” said Korfmacher. “At the end of the day, however, the ability to communicate, interpret, and use the resulting information turned out to require strong, ongoing partnerships between diverse stakeholders. We really believe that this approach can promote equity in COVID-19 surveillance.”

At Fisher, the wastewater surveillance program was made possible through a collaboration between the Wegmans School of Pharmacy, the Office of Safety and Security, Facilities Services, the Division of Student Affairs, and the Provost’s Office. The College completed baseline sampling before students’ return to campus in the fall, and conducted surveillance twice weekly, throughout the academic year. The wastewater was collected through an automated system over a 24-hour period, and samples were sent to a laboratory that looked for traces of the virus.

Camenisch helped lead the wastewater surveillance program, which was one of several indicators the College’s COVID-19 Monitoring Team used to maintain or heighten universal precautions (mask wearing, social distancing, etc.), increase protocols and other mitigation efforts, or engage in repeat sample testing.

In the fall, Camenisch also oversaw the College’s in-house saliva surveillance program, conducting saliva-based surveillance of students living on campus. That procedure, which offers a rapid response turnaround and is less invasive than nasal swabs, took place at a laboratory located in the School of Pharmacy. In the spring, the College transitioned to weekly COVID-19 testing for all members of the campus community who were living, learning, or working on campus.

He described the efforts as a “layered and detailed approach” that could serve as the “canary in the mine shaft to alert to potential increases in the virus,” allowing the College to intervene early in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Fisher also participated in the Monroe County Wastewater Surveillance Working Group, an effort that Korfmacher launched in July 2020 to further partnerships in the Rochester region. The group, which also included the RIT, Monroe County’s Frank E. Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Plant, and others in the region, met weekly and engaged over 30 members from county and state government agencies, local colleges and private sector companies.

As colleges and universities look toward long-term surveillance for COVID-19, this paper provides timely insight into essential considerations for design, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability. Although approaches are still evolving, these initial efforts make a strong case for the potential of wastewater surveillance to play a key role in affordable, long-term monitoring for COVID-19 – and other future diseases – on not only colleges campuses, but at other kinds of institutions and in communities.