Press Releases

University uses wastewater to spot COVID-19 outbreaks

September 2020

POWER environmental specialist Nathan Bachik collects wastewater samples for testing on the Susquehanna University Campus.

YORK, Penn. (September 9, 2020) ‒ Susquehanna University in Central Pennsylvania will be better able to identify potential COVID-19 outbreaks and hotspots on campus, thanks to a new sanitary wastewater analytical program.

Designed by wastewater experts at Idaho-based consulting firm POWER Engineers, the program is a key component in the university’s response as they welcome students back in person this fall. POWER developed the program based on research from municipal COVID-19 studies and applied this knowledge to best serve the needs of a college campus.

“The ability to quickly develop a testing plan, and then deploy that plan has been invaluable to SU. Identifying a potential outbreak before it can spread will be the key to keeping our students safe on campus this fall,” said Chris Bailey, Director of Facilities Management. “We are grateful to have a partner in POWER Engineers who has the capabilities to design and execute this innovative program.”

Wastewater analysis has been used to identify positive detections of SARS-CoV-2 in a community, often days before symptoms become apparent and individuals can be unwittingly contagious. It can also be used to cost-effectively screen groups in lieu of consistent testing of individuals. Further, positivity trends can be evaluated for both large and smaller groups based on the data sets.

Since August, POWER has been helping SU develop a custom plan, identify and select a project laboratory site, define sample locations to pinpoint where outbreaks might be occurring, install and operate sampling equipment, and initiate data evaluation as students move onto campus in a staged process.

Samples are collected every two days at occupied dormitories, with laboratory results available less than two days after sampling. If the system detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2, sample locations can be modified or added to better pinpoint the location of a potential outbreak. The university is also using the results as a basis for individual testing of students and personnel.

“It has been a true privilege to work with Susquehanna University to develop this core element of their COVID-19 management approach,” said Jim Young, senior geologist for POWER. “We believe that similar approaches can be tailored for almost any community to help proactively maintain a safer, protective environment.”