JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri continues testing wastewater for spikes of COVID-19, but the governor is thanking state employees for being the first in the nation to detect the virus through sewer water.
Gov. Mike Parson said it was shortly after Missouri started testing wastewater for COVID-19, when he got a call from the Vice President, asking him how Missouri developed this idea. Since then, other states have utilized this model to prevent outbreaks.
Parson told employees of the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) employees Wednesday about the testing.
“There’s no telling, truth be known, how many lives you saved,” said Parson. “I’ve got more trust, more confidence in state employees than I could imagine. I’ve seen the best of the best, I’ve seen good people do good things.”
It’s a dirty but important job. Marc Johnson has been testing wastewater for COVID for more than two years.
“What really changed was at the beginning of 2021 when we started sequencing it, so we could really see what in the lineages were causing or not causing spikes,” said Johnson. “We’ve learned a lot more about what works and what doesn’t.”
Johnson, the lead researcher at Mizzou over the testing wastewater, played a major role in the phone call the governor received shortly after the pandemic started.
“About half an hour later, the White House calls back and wants to know what we are doing here, how we are doing it, and how they could utilize that in other states to share that information,” said Parson.
Parson said the call came after governors from across the country were meeting with the Vice President on the phone to find answers to the virus.
“It became the model of where we were in this country, so it was pretty neat that it started in Missouri,” said Parson in an interview Wednesday. “It’s something we will be able to use for another tool.”
The governor thanked and recognized DHSS team members Wednesday for their part in Missouri’s Coronavirus Sewershed Surveillance Project. The team received the Governor’s Pinnacle Award last month.
“This is one of those shining stars that people are going to look back on us someday when we have the next event and we will, something will come up in our history, somebody is going to come back and look at these models of how we did things,” said Parson.
Back in May of 2020, nine wastewater treatment facilities around the state participated in a six-week pilot researching and testing samples. Since then, over 150 weekly samples from prisons, treatment facilities, universities, and communities have been tested for potential increases in infection.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides the wastewater treatment facilities with the kits, boxes, bags, and tubes in order for the lab to test the samples. Johnson said once they receive the data; within a matter of hours, they upload the information to DHSS who then passes it along to local health departments.
Johnson said his lab at Mizzou collects roughly 200 samples of wastewater weekly but the virus isn’t gone. In the past week, the state has reported nearly 14,000 new COVID cases. Johnson said there has been an uptick since early spring and B.A. 5 is currently the dominant variant.
“We are about 20 to 25 times higher than we were at our low back in March,” said Johnson. “It’s increased steadily for the last 16 weeks. All of these Omicron variants, one is subtly different than the next one, so, one will kind of displace the next, but none of them take off like Delta or the original Omicron.”
He said it is possible to test wastewater samples for monkeypox, and other states are, like California, but it’s not happening here in Missouri.
Johnson said he hopes in the future, testing can be used to find flu outbreaks. On DHSS’s Sewershed Surveillance Project website, red triangles, meaning there’s been a 40% increase of COVID found in the wastewater in the past week, or the virus has increased by 25% in the last two weeks.