COVID-19 in Oklahoma Wastewater Increases Dramatically, Signaling Surge in Cases

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COVID-19 in Oklahoma Wastewater Increases Dramatically, Signaling Surge in Cases

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and OU Health have detected a major increase of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage samples collected in the state’s metropolitan areas, which predicted the current surge in COVID-19 cases across the City and the State as a whole.

Over the past two weeks, the concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 in the different samples from wastewater-treatment plants have been anywhere from 33 to 67 times higher than when they were measured in May. “The increasing levels of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater over the past month are yet another indicator that new infections are occurring rapidly throughout the state. We haven’t seen concentration levels like these since just before our winter case surge,” said Halley Reeves, Vice President of Community and Rural Health Impact for OU Health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many people infected with COVID-19 shed the virus in their waste before developing symptoms. OU, OU Health and several partners have been continually monitoring sewage for SARS-CoV-2 as a means of predicting potential surges. “We use the same technology to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is used in the individual PCR tests. The concentration of virus per liter is directly related to the number of individuals with COVID-19 in the sewershed,” said Dr. Bradley Stevenson, Associate Professor of Microbiology at the University of Oklahoma.

“Analyzing wastewater helps to predict surges about a week before we see case counts increase. High concentrations suggest that community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 occurs at high levels and almost certainly among some of the vulnerable populations that our surveillance covers,” said Dr. Katrin Kuhn, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Hudson College of Public Health.

According to the state’s weekly COVID report, last week there were 14,793 new COVID-19 infections reported in Oklahoma and 136 deaths attributed to COVID-19 this last week. Cumulatively and across the state, 5.8% of the cases have been hospitalized. “This data has been an incredible tool as we continue to help fight the ongoing pandemic,” Phil Maytubby, OCCHD chief operating officer said. “Data has been crucial in our response and this predictive methodology has enhanced our planning effort. As the research has continued and specific mutations have been detected that are found in the genome of the Delta variant, OCCHD has used this data to better assess our operation. Because wastewater samples do not suggest a decrease in transmission during the near future, it is important to remain aware of a high risk of infection and take recommended precautions such as wearing masks and receiving the COVID vaccination.”

“The Delta variant of COVID-19, which accounts for the majority of new infections, is much more contagious than past versions of the virus. Because of that, we must take every precaution available to slow the infection rate. Healthcare providers and hospitals are stretched to the limit, and too many Oklahomans are suffering.” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, D.O., MPH, Chief COVID Officer for OU and Chief Quality Officer for OU Health.

Over the past year, the OU and OU Health team has worked in collaboration with municipalities across the state to collect and analyze wastewater for the presence of COVID-19. The communities using this data will continue to use the data collected to help with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes assisting agencies in anticipating case surges and predicting levels of infection in the communities.