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IU processing city, county wastewater samples to test for COVID-19, flu, mpox

For Immediate Release Dec 7, 2022

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana University is partnering with the city of Bloomington and Monroe County to test wastewater samples for a number of viruses, giving city and county health officials important public health data faster than before.

Student Rachel Clark works in assistant professor Justin Greaves' lab at IU Bloomington. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana Univ... Student Rachel Clark works in assistant professor Justin Greaves' lab at IU Bloomington. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

The lab at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington started processing wastewater samples in mid-November for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; mpox, previously known as monkeypox; and influenza to track community transmission of these diseases.

“We know that viruses show up in wastewater before they typically show up in the community with testing or sickness,” said assistant professor Justin Greaves, who is overseeing the lab and the students assisting the project. “This is a powerful tool that allows us to capture both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases of a range of viruses, so we can better understand what the community transmission is like, this winter and beyond. If we start seeing more community infections of other viruses down the road, like RSV for example, our lab has the capability to test for those, if needed.”

The city of Bloomington and Monroe County have been testing wastewater for COVID-19 since 2020, but they were sending it to laboratories outside of the county for processing. They say this new agreement with IU allowed them to expand their testing to include influenza and mpox, and results are processed in days rather than a week.

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“This is a way to see the potential onset of an outbreak and the prevalence of viral spread,” said Vic Kelson, city of Bloomington utilities director. “As utilities professionals, we’re thrilled to participate in a program that can be an early warning for the public health of our community.”

Currently, wastewater testing samples are being gathered from six sites: two from the IU Bloomington campus, two from the city of Bloomington, one from Paoli and one from Bedford. The goal is to add two more sites from Monroe County, including Ellettsville, in the near future.

IU School of Public Health-Bloomington assistant professor Justin Greaves, left, and student Frankie Garza analyze data in a lab at IU Bl... IU School of Public Health-Bloomington assistant professor Justin Greaves, left, and student Frankie Garza analyze data in a lab at IU Bloomington. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Samples of wastewater from each site are collected from the sewer system twice a week and then processed through Greaves’ lab. The data gathered from regular and frequent testing can show trends and prevalence of viruses throughout Monroe County.

“As public health officials, we will use this data to better understand the trends we’re seeing in our community, to then decide how to respond or make decisions that could impact public health,” said Lori Kelley, Health Administrator for the Monroe County Health Department. “For example, if we’re seeing a surge in one area, maybe we need a mobile testing unit there or increased access to vaccinations. That’s the key here: To have this additional data, more quickly, to help us make better informed decisions.”

“This collaborative project takes lessons learned from the pandemic and leverages the research and service resources of Indiana University to raise the quality of public health for the communities in our region,” said Kirk White, vice provost for external relations for IU Bloomington.

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