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College Hopes to ‘Flush Out’ COVID-19 Cases on Campus

Wastewater collection sites installed at sewer pipes around campus

ALMA — In the winter term, Alma College officials will have a new tool for detecting COVID-19 cases among students on campus.

Sampling pumps, which will allow for testing of wastewater, were recently set up in sewer pipes at residence halls and other buildings on campus, officials said. COVID-19 shows up in waste before those who are infected show physical signs of illness or infection.

“Anything we can do to make ourselves smarter and more knowledgeable about this virus, it’s incumbent upon us to do it,” said Alan Gatlin, senior vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of Alma College. “This will give us a more refined, or targeted, measure of how we can test for COVID-19 on campus moving forward, and keep the virus from spreading.”

Here’s how it works at Alma: Beginning the week that students return for the winter term in January, the eight sampling pumps that have been installed at the college’s residence halls and nearby apartment buildings will be turned on. The pumps — which are distinctive around campus for the black-painted, doghouse-sized enclosure that surrounds them — are connected to outgoing sewer pipes by a thin tube similar to the kind you find in refrigerators.

The pumps collect a small sample of water from the sewer pipes on a periodic basis, Gatlin said, roughly a few ounces every 15 minutes. At the end of a 24-hour period, the pumps automatically turn off and the water is collected by college officials. The water is then transferred to sterile containers and shipped to one of the colleges and universities across the state that has agreed to do the testing.

Within 24 hours of sending off the samples, Gatlin said, Alma officials should know whether COVID-19 is present in the college’s wastewater.

“The way I understand it, when a person has COVID-19 present in their system they shed those cells through their waste, even before they are showing outward signs of the virus,” Gatlin said. “By collecting samples of the wastewater, we hope to be able to tell that someone had COVID-19 in their system within the past 24 hours — then, we can conduct a concentrated testing campaign in the area they live.”

Plans are still being made, Gatlin said, but he expects that if COVID-19 cells are found in the wastewater of a particular residence hall or student apartment building, that the students who reside there would then be subject to a more-specific round of testing. The hope is to efficiently identify the location of cases of COVID-19 on campus, and isolate those who may have it in order to mitigate any potential spread of the virus.

“We’ll focus on what the data is telling us and use it to inform our decision-making,” Gatlin said.

Officials are cognizant of privacy concerns that may be raised with the sampling pumps, Gatlin said. He emphasized that wastewater alone will not identify individuals who have COVID-19 — it will only help identify from which area on campus the wastewater came. He added that the college is only testing wastewater for the presence of COVID-19, not any other medical conditions or substances.

Plans for widespread testing of students, staff and faculty in the winter term are still being discussed among college officials.

“If you would have told me six months ago that we would have the capability of finding cases of COVID-19 on campus without use of one-on-one testing, I’m not sure I would have believed you. So, I do find this interesting,” Gatlin said. “This is another tool in our belt that we’ll use to help people stay safe on campus.”

Story published on December 08, 2020