COVID community update: sewage study could help track COVID

JACKSON, Wyo. — Our poop is on its way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That’s right. According to County Health Officer Travis Riddell, MD, studies have shown that wastewater surveillance can help track diseases. The novel coronavirus is shed in feces. A lab at MIT is helping communities test wastewater for COVID-19 so officials can monitor disease levels. Assitant Public Works Director Johnny Ziem heard of the opportunity and “jumped on it.”

It’s one of several ways officials can monitor how prevalent it is in the community, which will inform when and how local businesses start to reopen. Plus, tracking COVID-19 levels through wastewater surveillance could help officials monitor if and when the virus makes a comeback.

“If we see another spike moving forward, it could indicate a resurgence,” Riddell said.

Economic recovery was a popular point at the weekly community update Friday evening. Riddell and Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond agreed that “reopening” Jackson will depend heavily on testing availability so health officials can keep a close eye on the spread of the virus. Any plan to reopen businesses must also be “nimble,” Pond said, to prepare for a possible resurgence.

“It will not be an ‘all clear’ type of approach,” Pond said. “It will be partial, and slow… conditions may require one step forward and two steps back.”

Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson reported on the first meeting of the Economic Recovery Task Force and said she agrees an adaptable, phased approach is safe and feasible.

“I strongly believe businesses will know and have the best ideas based on meeting the criteria Public Health lays out,” she said. “Economic recovery is a positive conversation and we look forward to continuing it.”

Broader access to active disease testing, which is used to diagnose the virus, is still the priority for both St. John’s Health and the Health Department.

“We’re working on state and national level to secure testing we need,” said St. John’s CEO Paul Beaupré.

Antibody testing will only be useful when it is scientifically sound and FDA-approved, and so far there is only one FDA-approved antibody test on the market. Riddell said he was “very concerned” to hear of a healthcare professional offering antibody testing and saying that they were “antibody positive and ready to start partying.”

“Unless [tests] have been really scrutinized, you could be getting false positives. That could be very dangerous,” Riddell said. “Let us do our work before everyone gets really excited about antibody testing.”

A panel of doctors and scientists is working to find an antibody test that will best serve Teton County.

The rate of cases seemed to slow this week, but Riddell said now is not the time to let guards down.

“There are still models that predict a peak in late April or May,” he said. As April 30 approaches — the day Riddell’s public health order is set to end — he encourages continued diligence in preventative measures.

“Let’s not rest on our laurels,” Riddell said. “Don’t put too much on April 30.”

“It’s working,” Beaupré said of physical distancing measures. “The work you’re doing is working.”

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