Fisher Implements Wastewater, Saliva Surveillance to Boost COVID-19 Detection

August 31, 2020

This semester, St. John Fisher College is engaging in a wastewater surveillance program in all campus residence halls as part of its SARS CoV2 (COVID-19) detection and mitigation strategy.

The 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.

“It is inevitable that we will have asymptomatic cases in our community and this proactive approach will allow us to have an early start on mitigating the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Matha Thornton, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and chair of the COVID-19 Monitoring Team. “We are fortunate to have this expertise at Fisher as this capability was crucial to our planning and will be to our ongoing efforts.”

According to Thornton, who also served as the co-chair of the Campus Reopening Task Force, wastewater surveillance is a new public health tool being used to understand COVID-19 spread in a community and is a very good early warning system.

The College completed baseline sampling before students’ return to campus and will conduct surveillance twice weekly, throughout the fall semester. The wastewater is collected through an automated system over a 24-hour period, and samples are sent to a laboratory that looks for traces of the virus.

Dr. Todd Camenisch, professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences at the School of Pharmacy, is helping to lead the wastewater surveillance program. He explains that the team is looking at three levels of detection: not detected, detected but not quantitated, and detected and quantitated. Based on the level, the College would either maintain or heighten universal precautions (mask wearing, social distancing, etc.) in place, increase protocols and other mitigation efforts, or engage in repeat sample testing.

At the third level, the College can conduct saliva-based surveillance of residents. That procedure, which offers a rapid response turnaround and is less invasive than nasal swabs, will take place at a laboratory located in the School of Pharmacy. Fisher is the only local college—and aside from Syracuse University, the only regional college—to have the capability of in-house saliva surveillance.

The lab is overseen by Camenisch with the help of pharmacy faculty members including Dr. Janet Lighthouse and recent biology graduate, Maura Connorton, who will help carry out the analysis of the saliva samples. 

The campus lab will mobilize this week, collecting saliva samples from students who reside in halls where a trace amount was detected in the most recent wastewater sample.

Al Camp, fire and life safety officer at Fisher, said this novel approach to detecting the presence of COVID-19 is a system that can reduce infection uncertainty from weeks to days.

Camenisch agreed, noting that this strategy will help the College fulfill its commitment to protecting the campus community.

“We anticipate that this layered and detailed approach will serve as the ‘canary in the mine shaft’ to alert to potential increases in the virus and intervene early in order to mitigate spread of COVID-19,” he said.