Apr 18, 2022

SARs-CoV2 Monitoring in Wastewater: 18 months of innovative data visualization to inform local, regional, and state public health departments

With funding from the Catena Foundation, SFEI’s Environmental Informatics program supported the groundbreaking scientific genetic sequencing data produced by our close partner, the University of California’s Berkeley Water Center. SFEI’s Software Engineering Manager Gemma Shusterman led the development of a new data dashboard, designed to track the spread of COVID-19 in our region. Monitoring wastewater is an efficient method to track COVID-19 because infected individuals shed the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their feces. By testing a sample from a sewer, information is provided about infection levels for an entire community. Wastewater monitoring is complementary to clinical testing because it provides information even for people who are asymptomatic or don’t access clinical testing.

The Data Dashboard generated statistical charts and maps, showing changes over time relevant to the concerns of public health officials. These experts would leverage these informational resources to gain access to timely, critical data which would serve as an early warning signal, as much as two weeks in advance of reported outbreaks. The public health agencies would then take the opportunity to re-allocate key resources and take additional measures in anticipation of an increased caseload.

Trends in the wastewater data reflect whether the infection levels in the community are increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant. Many research studies have shown that these wastewater trends mirror COVID-19 case data in the sewershed. At some points in the pandemic and in places when there has been less availability of clinical testing, research has shown that the SARS-CoV-2 wastewater trends can precede case data trends by as much as two weeks.

While genetic sequencing of pathogens in wastewater is not altogether new, the methods and forms of data remain cutting edge, and this certainly marks among the first times that such methods are applied to a pandemic in progress. For the first time, public health agencies were able to make key decisions about policy and practice based on wastewater-based surveillance methods.

It is likely that such collaborations among environmental scientists, public health officials, data scientists, and academic researchers will continue to yield new insights regarding the transmission of disease in our communities. SFEI proudly supports such endeavors to bolster effective public health decisions.

Other Contributors: 
Ashok Aggarwal
Programs and Focus Areas: 
Environmental Informatics Program
Software Engineering