EGLE, MDHHS launch pilot program for COVID-19 sewer testing

Macomb County hopes for additional funding

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published October 2, 2020

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LANSING/MACOMB COUNTY — The state of Michigan is devoting more money toward local public health department efforts to coordinate with local governments, universities and other institutions in relation to COVID-19 wastewater testing programs.

On Sept. 16, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or MDHHS, announced a $10 million grant for a three-month pilot program, designed to facilitate an early warning system for coronavirus spread within a specific community — or for outbreaks on college campuses or at densely populated facilities.

The money comes from the state’s allocation of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, funding. The goal is to target existing wastewater surveillance systems statewide, establishing a standardized and coordinated network of monitoring systems by Oct. 1.

“Since nearly 70% of Michigan residents rely on public wastewater systems, this COVID-19 surveillance program has the potential to provide critical, life-saving data on COVID-19 transmission within a large portion of Michigan’s population,” said EGLE Director Liesl Clark in a statement. “The ability to predict outbreaks on college campuses, at nursing homes, prisons and other congregate care facilities could be game changers in our mission to slow the spread of this virus.”

Testing for viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, can help communities and facilities monitor the transmission of COVID-19 due to the virus being shed in human waste. Testing samples pulled from sewers and wastewater treatment plans can show signs of the virus — and often at a more rapid rate than human clinical samples.

Samples would indicate a presence of the virus even when individuals are not ill or have yet to become ill. Other coordination during the three-month period, beyond sample collection, includes lab analysis, data reporting and communication with local monitoring teams statewide.

MDHHS will aid local health departments in terms of integrating data with other COVID-19 surveillance measures, as well as public health responses. Dr. Joan Rose, of Michigan State University, will develop the lab testing methods for local units.

This pilot project at the state level mimics what has been conducted in Macomb County in recent months, with the county’s pilot project pulling sewer samples from seven locations in Clinton Township. At press time, those samples were being tested at the MSU lab, with data being released upon completion.

An additional grant funding application has been submitted to EGLE and MDHHS to expand sewer testing in Macomb County. The county’s goal is to provide information to the health department, in terms of hotspot identification and to prevent potential outbreaks by efficient and effective contract tracing.

“I’m happy that the state is following our lead and will commit significant funding and partner with local governments in this effort to detect the extent of the presence of the coronavirus, using this innovative method. It’s a good expenditure of funds,” said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller in a statement. “My office has been on the cutting edge of sewage sampling in Michigan. With our experience thus far, we have offered to take on a leadership role and share the knowledge we have gained this summer, with other municipalities that may land some of the state funding for their own local sewage sampling and testing pilot projects.”

The county’s current sampling process is being funded by a $1 million allocation, pulled from $152 million in total CARES Act dollars provided to Macomb County.