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NIU Detecting COVID through Wastewater monitoring 

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Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District
Aerial view of the Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District

A program out of Northern Illinois University has been tracking potential COVID-19 outbreaks using sewage.

NIU’s wastewater surveillance testing program for the virus that causes COVID-19 got started in the fall of 2020. Dr. Barrie Bode, who leads the program, says that this kind of testing isn’t new, but reached a new level of visibility with the pandemic.

"It's been used in the past to survey for things like poliovirus and typhoid and and other infectious agents like this," said Bode.

Bode adds that this kind of surveillance doesn't just provide a broad scope, it's is also cost-effective — about a third as expensive as the saliva testing that Northern Illinois University will phase out beginning next week.

"So the advantage to that, of course, is you have an economy of scale in place," said Bode, "that allows you to, in a very unbiased way, sample the community to assess what the prevailing viral loads are in the community."

The Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District is a partner of the program. The way it works is that field technicians take samples three days a week at three different site and deliver them to Bode's laboratory. The samples are then test through a process called RT-qPCR for the presence and quantity of virus in the wastewater.

The wastewater testing program is planning to add eight additional testing sites to the campus, for a total of 11 testing sites, including tracking the virus at individual residence halls.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.