New website tracks COVID-19 levels in wastewater in Illinois

aerial view of wastewater plant (Source: Pexels/Izzet Cakalli)
aerial view of wastewater plant (Source: Pexels/Izzet Cakalli)

(KBSI) – There is a new website that tracks the levels of COVID-19 in wastewater samples several cities across Illinois.

The Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) announced the new website, iwss.uillinois.edu/, on Tuesday.

The interactive online tool builds on the statistics posted on the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker website and provides more Illinois-specific data in easy-to-understand charts.

“Wastewater surveillance is a great tool that can help detect and monitor COVID-19, the flu and other pathogens,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, IDPH director. “This new website is designed to inform and educate residents of Illinois and will give them the ability to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves.”

Visitors can search by city or county for up-to-date figures and trendlines from any one of 75 wastewater treatment plants around Illinois that are voluntarily
collecting samples of raw sewage to be screened for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to Discovery Partners Institute which is part of the University of Illinois system.

Samples are collected twice a week and taken to a high-throughput lab at the University of Illinois Chicago for analysis and then to Argonne National Laboratory for genetic sequencing to identify virus variants.

Monitoring wastewater for the coronavirus has been proven to be an accurate and cost efective way to measure COVID-19’s presence in a community. Genetic material from viruses and other germs is excreted in the feces and urine of infected people, eventually showing up in the raw sewage piped into purification facilities.

Public health authorities increasingly have come to rely on wastewater tallies now that people generally have switched to doing at-home COVID-19 testing and are not reporting results.

The DPI team recently began screening sewage samples for influenza A and B for IDPH. The goal is to share these results on the dashboard as soon as possible.

Sandra Gesing, DPI wastewater team lead and senior research scientist, says the vision is to provide online modules for all the different levels of experience and ages, from kindergarteners to seniors, to show the usefulness of the information.

DPI is part of the University of Illinois System and began its wastewater surveillance effort in 2020, partnering with UIC and Argonne as well as Northwestern University, which assists in data modeling and analytics.

The Discovery Partners Institute joined with UIC and Rush University Medical Center to collect and analyze wastewater to identify the presence of potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant organisms in long-term care facilities.

DPI and Shield T3, a for-profit startup spun out of University of Illinois, are also conducting a pilot program to test wastewater for the coronavirus at Illinois public schools.

The DPI-led team also collects and analyzes supplemental samples from sewers in Chicago neighborhoods and O’Hare International Airport under a separate contrac, and shares these test results with the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The Chicago data on the new dashboard is based only on samples taken at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago treatment plants that serve the city.

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