Averting an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in a university residence hall through wastewater surveillance

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Microbiology Spectrum






COVID-19, RT-qPCR, SARS-CoV-2, Wastewater


A wastewater surveillance program targeting a university residence hall was implemented during the spring semester 2021 as a proactive measure to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus. Over a period of 7 weeks from early February through late March 2021, wastewater originating from the residence hall was collected as grab samples 3 times per week. During this time, there was no detection of SARS-CoV-2 by reverse transcriptase quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) in the residence hall wastewater stream. Aiming to obtain a sample more representative of the residence hall community, a decision was made to use passive samplers beginning in late March onwards. Adopting a Moore swab approach, SARS-CoV-2 was detected in wastewater samples just 2 days after passive samplers were deployed. These samples also tested positive for the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant of concern (VOC) using RT-qPCR. The positive result triggered a public health case-finding response, including a mobile testing unit deployed to the residence hall the following day, with testing of nearly 200 students and staff, which identified two laboratory-confirmed cases of Alpha variant COVID-19. These individuals were relocated to a separate quarantine facility, averting an outbreak on campus. Aggregating wastewater and clinical data, the campus wastewater surveillance program has yielded the first estimates of fecal shedding rates of the Alpha VOC of SARS-CoV-2 in individuals from a nonclinical setting. IMPORTANCE Among early adopters of wastewater monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 have been colleges and universities throughout North America, many of whom are using this approach to monitor congregate living facilities for early evidence of COVID-19 infection as an integral component of campus screening programs. Yet, while there have been numerous examples where wastewater monitoring on a university campus has detected evidence for infection among community members, there are few examples where this monitoring triggered a public health response that may have averted an actual outbreak. This report details a wastewater-testing program targeting a residence hall on a university campus during spring 2021, when there was mounting concern globally over the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, reported to be more transmissible than the wild-type Wuhan strain. In this communication, we present a clear example of how wastewater monitoring resulted in actionable responses by university administration and public health, which averted an outbreak of COVID-19 on a university campus.





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