Wastewater testing for COVID: Milwaukee County sees numbers rise

COVID levels in Milwaukee County are the lowest they have been in eight months. That is good news. But tests being done at Milwaukee's Jones Island indicate another rise may be coming.

"Wastewater has been known to proceed increases in cases as picked up through more traditional surveillance systems, it can kind of give us an early peak or early look at what we might be seeing early on," said Dr. Jonathan Meiman with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

Meiman said county sewer sheds are tested twice a week. Both Jones Island and South Shore saw recent increases in COVID detection.

"No surveillance system is perfect and what we want to do is pull all the data together to show a coherent picture of what is going on," Meiman said.

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Even experts admit, the data needs to be flushed out a little more before sending any alarms.

"I think in the next week or so we are going to a lot more data points, and we will firm up which direction we think this is heading," Meiman said.

With regular COVID testing down, this at least gives researchers an idea of what COVID levels are really like. Milwaukee County's spike echoes national CDC data – which indicates more than a third of U.S. wastewater sample sites reported rising COVID trends in early March. That is double the levels from a month earlier.

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"I think what would signal, what would be an indication, is we’d be seeing a clear sign of increasing COVID-19 transmission is if the levels in wastewater – which they are in a couple of systems – are getting consistently above a low level where we expect to see a lot of variability," Meiman said.

Wisconsin has been testing wastewater for COVID since June 2020.

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