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DHS: Increasing COVID-19 virus amounts found at some Wis. wastewater plants

They’re supposed to be early indicators of coronavirus activity, but officials say in Dane Co. predictors are unreliable.
The Wis. Department of Health Services says it’s found increasing amounts of COVID-19 virus at some wastewater plants across the state.
Published: Mar. 15, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - In the past week, the Wis. Department of Health Services says it’s found increasing amounts of COVID-19 virus at some wastewater plants across the state, a potential signal to what coronavirus activity may be ahead.

Wastewater is supposed to be an early indicator of COVID-19 in a community. As the DHS explains on its website, coronavirus can be found in feces shortly after someone is infected with the virus. It can even show up before symptoms appear.

“These SARS-CoV-2 concentrations are still low, and in a range where there is greater uncertainty in detecting trends,” DHS Spokesperson Elizabeth Goodsitt, wrote to NBC15. “However, upward trends identified in larger cities are suggestive of increased community transmission.”

DHS data updated Tuesday indicated a “major increase” of virus concentration at some wastewater treatment plants in cities like Platteville, Milwaukee and Green Bay. Goodsitt said the “major increase” definition refers to how numbers compare to other recent measurements.

State data said Madison’s wastewater virus levels were moderately decreasing, though with its own data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saw increases in Dane Co.

“We have to expect some increases and some decreases especially right now as mask mandates have been lifted, people are resuming life, sort of, normally if you will,” Ajay Sethi, an associate professor and faculty director at UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said.

He said, “A statistical increase is not necessarily indicative of a public health level of alarm. We just have to see what the next couple of weeks look like and how they play out.”

In Dane Co., COVID-19 activity has been declining.

Morgan Finke, a spokesperson with Public Health Madison & Dane Co., said the declines in cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to coronavirus in the last two months “conflict” with wastewater trends.

Goodsitt said, “While wastewater concentrations correlate very well with diagnosed COVID-19 in most jurisdictions, Madison has shown high levels of variability that have been under study for the past several months.”

She added, labs are working to find the reason for Madison’s variability, but a single answer has not been found.

According to the CDC, nearly 40 percent of wastewater sampling sites across the U.S. are reporting an increased level of the virus over the past fifteen days, doubling the numbers from last month.

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