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UofL to expand wastewater testing to infections beyond COVID-19

Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville.
Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville.

Researchers at the University of Louisville will soon expand the scope of infections they test for in Jefferson County wastewater. 

In the coming weeks, UofL’s Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil will begin new testing methods allowing them to detect pathogens such as polio, influenza and RSV. 

Since the summer of 2020, the researchers have been testing for the presence of COVID in multiple sites across Louisville. Last year, they started genetic sequencing to determine which variants of the virus may be present and how much virus may be showing up in different parts of the community. 

“What we're doing now is shifting so that we can see other things that we've been excluding,” said Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, part of UofL’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute. “So we'll be able to see hundreds, if not thousands, of more things.”

Smith said rather than testing specifically for COVID, for instance, they’ll be using a broader panel that allows them to look for multiple infections within the samples. 

“We're really trying to get out of the business of chasing the most recent thing somebody found and be in the business of looking at everything all the time,” he said. 

With COVID, they’ve been able to work with local health officials to identify “parts of Louisville that were under-tested or under-vaccinated just by the wastewater signature,” Smith said. After that, they could focus vaccination campaigns on those areas. 

The testing has been a barometer for COVID infections in the area, including confirming in July that the omicron BA.5 variant had become the predominant strain in the county. 

Responses to the findings will depend on the illness, Smith said. With the seasonal flu, for instance, they could be able to give advance warning to Jefferson County Public Schools.

“We can probably know about the flu four weeks before [JCPS] starts counting up absent kids,” he said. 

Since July, Louisville researchers have been sampling for monkeypox at the county’s largest collection site, which handles the waste of around 250,000 people.

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness reported last week that of the 33 monkeypox cases in Kentucky, 19 were in Jefferson County.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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