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U.S. Geological Survey COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance

April 12, 2022
Woman in full protective gear holding a bag with sample bottles.
Field team member Laura Hubbard shows off a sample in the field after pickup from the wastewater facility.

USGS, as part of the National Wastewater Surveillance System, designed and implemented high-frequency sampling of wastewater across six states throughout September 2021, to support tracking of potential increases in COVID-19 infections in communities. COVID-19 viral loads were determined for each sample with the goal of delivering results to the CDC within three days of sampling. 

Wastewater surveillance and wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) are valuable tools which can be utilized to track exposure to chemicals or pathogens in human populations. WBE can provide advanced notice of increasing viral trends when compared to positive cases identified in infected individuals, and has the added benefit of being able to provide data for communities where timely COVID-19 clinical testing is underutilized or may be unavailable. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and other agencies, initiated the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to conduct COVID-19 WBE, and provide a national database to track COVID-19 infections in communities. Data generated by NWSS helps public health officials to better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities.   

To further support needs identified by NWSS, and provide important data on viral infections in rapidly expanding communities (college towns experiencing fall move-in), the USGS Environmental Health Program designed, implemented, and carried out a high-frequency sampling regime across the US with the goals of  

  • Demonstrating USGS wastewater sampling and analytical capabilities.  

  • Developing standard operating procedures for wastewater surveillance. 

  • Evaluating key field and laboratory quality assurance practices. 

  • Providing timely COVID-19 data to collaborators and state health officials. 

Teams of USGS employees focusing on logistics, safety, lab, field, and data were assembled from 20 centers across the US. They were trained and implemented this study within weeks of identifying the need for additional COVID-19 surge testing. Between September 8 and 30, 2021, these teams were able to 

Two men in full protective gear work on samples in a lab.
Purification of extracted RNA via vacuum manifold RNA column filtration in the BSL3 lab.
  • Compile testing and safety supplies for all field crew and wastewater facility employees. 

  • Collect samples from 25 wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) across six states. 

  • Ensure the collection, proper packaging, and transfer of 3 to 5 samples per week. 

  • Receive, process, and quantify viral loads for 354 samples in the Biosafety Level-3 Lab in Kearneysville, WV. 

  • Deliver results of laboratory analysis to CDC within three days of sampling. 

Results of this sampling effort provided near real-time COVID-19 data to both the CDC and state health departments and demonstrated the utility of wastewater surveillance to identify and represent spatial and temporal trends in viral infections.

Additionally, several studies were implemented to improve sample collection, storage, and processing. Outcomes of these studies will allow for safe and advanced sample collection and processing, to provide reliable and timely sample results in future wastewater surveillance efforts. Overall, as a result of this effort, the USGS is uniquely poised to provide critical data to federal and state partners for management of public health. 

Participating Centers: