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Wisdom from wastewater: Lessons learned from a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring program
Proceedings of the 2023 Mississippi Water Resources Conference

Year: 2023 Authors: Gitter A., Bauer C., Wu F., Chavarria C., Mena K.

Community-specific wastewater monitoring programs gained international attention during the COVID-19 pandemic due to their ability to detect SARS-CoV-2 genes in wastewater and consistently predict spikes in clinical cases one to three weeks in advance. The border city of El Paso, Texas - a predominantly Hispanic community with nearly 52% of its population experiencing a low socioeconomic status- acutely suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, the water utility, El Paso Water, initiated a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring program to assess virus trends and the appropriateness of a wastewater monitoring program for the binational city. Weekly sample collection continues to occur at four wastewater treatment facilities, serving distinct regions of the city. Previous work analyzing SARS-CoV-2 genes using the CDC 2019-Novel coronavirus Real-Time RT-PCR diagnostic panel identified a lag time between virus concentrations in wastewater and reported COVID-19 case rates ranging from 4 to 24 days. While the wastewater monitoring program at El Paso Water continues to expand (now monitoring for 10 viral pathogens), a critical need remains to translate wastewater data for public health preparedness and community health needs. Engaging local communities to identify public health concerns and experiences, through community health workers and surveys, will be needed to not only inform future wastewater monitoring directions, but also develop trust in the science. Additionally, utilizing quantitative microbial risk assessment to evaluate population-level health risks and potentially establish baseline concentrations for pathogens in wastewater (i.e., SARS-CoV-2) should be pursued. Establishing a framework for collecting, monitoring, translating and disseminating wastewater data will assist disease prevention efforts in the region. Wastewater is a critical resource to meet not only the limited water supply needs of El Paso, located in the arid Chihuahuan Desert, but also the public health needs of its community.

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