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Wastewater surveillance detected omicron variant in Kern County

Each flush here holds useful information.
Posted: 4:38 PM, Feb 09, 2022
Updated: 2022-02-09 21:26:20-05
Virus Outbreak Wastewater Tests Colleges

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System in September of 2020.

This system was developed to coordinate and build the nation’s capacity to track the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in wastewater samples, collected across the country.

Samples collected in Kern County were used for early detection of the omicron variant that was detected back in December.

What might seem like the average routine when using the restroom, is actually a tool that is used for lab analysis.

Each flush here in Kern County holds particles of useful information so communities can act quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Wastewater testing provides a really good complement to clinical testing. It provides a real snapshot of what’s going on in the whole community because everybody uses the bathroom,” said Sasha Harris-Lovett, External Relations Specialist at the Berkeley Water Center.

Sasha Harris-Lovett said they receive samples three times a week from the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Bakersfield. From this they can measure exactly how much of the virus is in the wastewater, which has been going on since September of 2021.

Thanks to that, they were able to identify the omicron variant in the wastewater.

“With the start of omicron, we were actually able to identify that variant in the wastewater in some ways before clinical testing had identified it in the county. So that was helpful for being able to let the public health officials know omicron has arrived,” said Harris-Lovett.

Salvador Lira, Industrial Waste Inspector of the Bakersfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, told 23ABC that in addition to identifying COVID-19 in the wastewater samples, it also allows for public health departments to jump ahead on preparation for when the case numbers do happen to spike within the county.

“Such as figuring out where to allocate mobile testing, vaccination sites, and in addition to that, this data is used to predict changes in hospital utilization by making sure preparation and all the necessary resources are there when the cases do increase.”

The data that is collected here is being used by public health agencies not only here in Kern County but around the state as well.

This ongoing surveillance system will continue to monitor on a weekly basis for potentially new variants being present here in our community.

23ABC In-Depth

National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS)

Wastewater surveillance can provide an early warning of COVID-19’s spread in communities.

People infected with SARS-CoV-2 can shed the virus in their feces, even if they don’t have symptoms. The virus can then be detected in wastewater, enabling wastewater surveillance to capture the presence of SARS-CoV-2 shed by people with and without symptoms. This allows wastewater surveillance to serve as an early warning that COVID-19 is spreading in a community. Once health departments are aware, communities can act quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Data from wastewater testing support public health mitigation strategies by providing additional crucial information about the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community.

Data from wastewater testing are meant to complement existing COVID-19 surveillance systems by providing:

  • An efficient community sample
  • Data for communities where timely COVID-19 clinical testing is underused or unavailable
  • Data for different communities within a county

How wastewater surveillance works

People infected with SARS-CoV-2 can shed viral RNA (genetic material from the virus) in their feces, and this RNA can be detected in community wastewater. Wastewater, also referred to as sewage, includes water from household or building use (such as toilets, showers, and sinks) that can contain human fecal waste, as well as water from non-household sources (such as rain and industrial use).

  • Wastewater from a sewershed (the community area served by a wastewater collection system) is collected as it flows into a treatment plant.
  • The samples are sent to environmental or public health laboratories for SARS-CoV-2 testing.
  • Health departments submit testing data to CDC through the online NWSS Data Collation and Integration for Public Health Event Response (DCIPHER) portal.
  • The NWSS DCIPHER system analyzes the data and reports results to the health department for use in their COVID-19 response. The results are available to the public through CDC’s COVID Data Tracker.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA Levels in Wastewater in Kern County

Maps, charts, and data provided by CDC, updated by 8pm ET. Represents all wastewater data submitted directly to CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System's DCIPHER platform, subject to suppression criteria described in Footnotes.