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Wastewater surveillance

Monitoring campus for virus that causes COVID-19

Campus and Community

By Sandy Woolfrey-Fahey

Memorial is a partner in a recently announced provincial government program to test wastewater for signs of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The provincial monitoring program is currently sampling nine communities with more planned across Newfoundland and Labrador. Memorial’s weekly testing site on the St. John’s campus is in the area of Clark Place of Elizabeth Avenue.

“Monitoring wastewater at key collection points is an effective way to capture a sampling of larger population groups simply because everyone goes to the bathroom,” said Dr. Rod Hobbs, radiation and biological safety officer, Office of the Chief Risk Officer, at Memorial.

“If COVID-19 is present in the community, surveillance allows for the detection of the virus and can provide an early warning of positive cases of COVID-19, even if asymptomatic. It also provides trends about levels of the virus in the community, which helps determine its prevalence.”

How it works

In general, the process involves collecting a sample from the wastewater system and shipping it to a laboratory for testing.

Results are sent to the provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change, where they are reported via a dashboard and relevant advisories.

“Memorial is a city within a city, and these results allow us and other participating towns to be proactive.” — Greg McDougall

The results are presented as gene copies per milliliter (cp/ml) and have to be greater than 16 cp/ml to be considered positive. If levels are above 16 cp/ml, Public Health will advise if extra controls are needed.

This methodology has been adopted in most jurisdictions across Canada and involves partnerships of government departments, municipalities and universities. 

3D printing at work

Memorial is also playing a key role in facilitating the wastewater collection process across the province by using the 3D printers in Technical Services at the Queen Elizabeth II Library to print COSCa balls.

COSCa stands for COVID-19 Sewer Cage; the  balls are used to collect samples. Dalhousie University shared the ball template file.

“It’s another excellent example of partners coming to the table to offer what resources we can to help move us through the pandemic,” said Greg McDougall, Memorial’s chief risk officer.

If virus is detected

“Memorial is a city within a city, and these results allow us and other participating towns to be proactive,” said Mr. McDougall.

Results are a leading indicator, meaning detection can happen before the broader community is aware of an issue. They can provide timely information to inform response plans to curb transmission if necessary.

If results indicate the presence of the COVID-19 virus in the university’s wastewater, Memorial will seek Public Health’s guidance and advice.

Participation in the monitoring program is another tool in Memorial’s toolbox of controls being used to plan, guide, adjust and pivot to help do its part to reduce the spread of COVID-19.


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