"There's a challenge that we've had the last four months--there's a challenge that citizens have had," said New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer. "We're trying to figure out where this virus is, how prevalent it is."
That data collection on novel coronavirus COVID-19 has taken officials to some surprising places, Meyer said during a special edition of ReOpening Delaware on The Rick Jensen Show.
"I know there's some broad disagreement that, unfortunately, now has in many ways become political," he said. "Some epidemiologists look at this and say, 'This is a devastating illness that could potentially have an impact like like the influenza of 1918, which is devastating in America and across the world. Others look at it and say, 'What are you talking about? This is not even the seasonal flu.' What we're trying to do, in your county government, is just look everywhere we can--without political bias--and try to get information. One place that has taken us...is down into the sewers."
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By joining forces with an MIT startup called BioBot, a partnership first reported at the end of April, New Castle County began examining wastewater in the county to study COVID-19 hotspots, submitting that information to the public at biobot.nccde.org and compassred.shinyapps.io/ncco_biobot.
"What they do is, they monitor wastewater across the country for disease--in this case, for COVID-19--and it's pretty interesting, you can look at graphs...that show you both how much COVID-19 there's been in our wastewater the past two months for all of New Castle County, and then you can also look at it by specific area," he said. "You can see, for example, in sort of mid- to late-April, that tremendous impact of the governor's emergency orders of people staying at home; you can see how it dramatically reduced the amount of COVID-19 that was being passed through wastewater. And you can see, as we went into Phase I and Phase II, it started to creep up a bit and now it's kind of stable."
Meyer said the system has its limitations, but it often provides a good starting point, and may inspire officials when it comes to future efforts reopening the state--specifically for large groups that must gather.
"They can measure wherever we can sample from our sewers. So, some neighborhoods, if you have two or three sewer pipes underground coming out of the neighborhood, and they're mixed with wastewater from other neighborhoods, it would be difficult to isolate a single neighborhood," he said. "But what we are looking at is, could we do a University of Delaware dorm? There's a lot of talk now about opening schools. What if we measured...the amount of virus coming out of every K-12 school in Delaware? So we had a daily reading of the wastewater coming out, and we could say 'Oh, there's a huge spike here, maybe we need to shut down for a few days and test everybody.'"
The method also makes sense because it's one of the fastest ways to spot COVID-19 in the community, and lets officials know if their restrictions and mandates are being effective in stymieing the spread.
"It's helpful to just know whether policies are working because, according to what scientists have told me, medical doctors, that one of the first places you shed the virus..not to get too gross, but you shed it through stool," he said. "So we're taking samples of the stool. My understanding of the disease is you often don't get sick [until] the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh day. So, a large number of people who are what they call pre-symptomatic, they have not yet developed any symptoms..We'll be able to identify a large number of people who have the virus before it's even known, and so that would help us say, 'Wow, there's a huge spike in this area. Do we need to focus our limited testing resources in this area?'"