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Wastewater Testing Finds COVID-19 Spikes In Western Kentucky County

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

A partnership between public health officials and university researchers to test wastewater in Graves County is detecting spikes of COVID-19 in the community several days before spikes of COVID-19 tests appeared. 

The project is a collaboration between the Graves County Health Department, Mayfield Electric and Water Systems, Murray State University, the University of Louisville Co-Immunity Project, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Samples from sites in Graves County are removed from Mayfield's wastewater treatment plant before undergoing testing in Murray State labs.

MSU Biology Professor Gary ZeRuth is one of the lead researchers on the project. He said while samples have only been analyzed over the past few weeks, the project already has identified potential virus hotspots in the county ahead of the traditional clinical and testing models.

“Our preliminary data seems to be suggesting that we saw a spike in virus that was in the wastewater that preceded the spike that was shown by clinical testing samples by about five to seven days,” ZeRuth told WKMS. 

Dr. Bikram Subedi, another MSU faculty member working on the project, said the wastewater analysis is effective even if COVID-positive individuals are asymptomatic.

“SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been shown to be shed into the wastewater from infected persons regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms,” Subedi explained in a press release. “Detection and measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater therefore serves as a comprehensive, non-invasive, near real-time, and cost-effective approach to monitoring COVID 19 infection within communities that is not dependent on individuals submitting to testing.”

Subedi said the wastewater testing can serve as an early warning system for virus outbreaks to allow public health leaders to respond surgically to hotspots within the area. 

"This is similar to the practice of having canaries in a coal mine. It shows us that there is an infection in our community before symptoms present themselves in individuals," said Graves County Health Department Director Noel Coplen in the release.

ZeRuth said the addition of Graves County to the project is part of an effort by the Foundation to expand COVID-19 wastewater testing into rural Kentucky. The program originally operated primarily in Louisville and northern Kentucky. The addition of Murray State University as a partner meant additional lab access to support the needs of testing in western Kentucky. 

Find more information on the University of Louisville’s Co-Immunity Project here


Dalton York is a Morning Edition host and reporter for WKYU in Bowling Green. He is a graduate of Murray State University, where he majored in History with a minor in Nonprofit Leadership Studies. While attending Murray State, he worked as a student reporter at WKMS. A native of Marshall County, he is a proud product of his tight-knit community.
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