Milwaukee COVID wastewater levels could soon go down, researchers say

Health officials are getting a look at COVID-19 trends through the flush of a toilet. 

Researchers have been taking samples from wastewater treatment plants like the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and testing them for COVID-19.

Health officials say the levels are at an all-time high, but researchers predict those numbers could soon go down.

It's been two years since researchers at UW-Milwaukee started testing wastewater to track COVID-19 trends in the community.

"We have, in Milwaukee County, two main sewer sheds, so these are areas where the sewage water all collects, and what you can do is sequence that sewage water and look for fragments of the COVID virus, the virus that causes COVID," said Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Sandra McLellan, a UW-Milwaukee freshwater science professor, says levels of COVID-19 in wastewater are the highest they've ever been, but the virus is on the downward trend in wastewater samples in other states. McLellan hopes Wisconsin will see the same.

"We’re hoping it’s going to decrease in the next two weeks, as sharply as it went up," said McClellan.

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The advantage of testing wastewater, it doesn't depend on whether people are getting tested themselves. This is especially important, as COVID-19 tests are hard to come by.

"We’re always seeing kind of the same population, so it kind of gives us a good benchmark to compare between surges and then definitely when testing isn’t available," said McClellan.

Over the last two years, McLellan says they've refined and developed methods when collecting samples -- including tracking specific variants. The long-term monitoring is something she believes is key for the future.

"This is going to give us a way to kind of keep an eye on how it changes and whether or not we’re seeing increases or outbreaks again," she said.

Researchers say there has to be two weeks' worth of samples at minimum to determine if there is a downward trend in cases.

There is a dashboard that shows the wastewater surveillance across Wisconsin.

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