Experimental research detects COVID-19 in Wolfville wastewater

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Researchers who are using wastewater as a way to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 have discovered it in Wolfville, N.S.

While the research is still experimental and the results may not be definitive, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health said it could be a signal that COVID-19 is making its way into communities outside of Halifax.

"It highlights the importance of everybody following the public health measures no matter where you live in Nova Scotia," said Dr. Robert Strang.

Strang said the province is going to increase capacity at the primary assessment centre in Wolfville, and is planning to have pop-up rapid-testing sites in place early next week.

Water tested weekly

Researchers with Dalhousie University are partnering with LuminUltra, a private company in Fredericton that holds the contract to supply the reagents to detect the virus, to test wastewater in Halifax and Wolfville.

Graham Gagnon, the director of the Dalhousie University Centre for Water Resource Studies, said sampling water from places where community spread is low could help identify where COVID-19 is in communities.

"If you think about a community in a more broad sense, not necessarily the town of Wolfville or the city of Halifax, but even very localized populations that you want to ensure community spread is minimal, then you can [have] those kinds of opportunities," he said.

CBC
CBC

They have been working with Acadia University in Wolfville to test water at two sites in the town: at the wastewater facility, which collects wastewater from Wolfville's four lift stations, and from a lift station that takes water from Acadia University to the western boundary of the town.

The positive test was found at the Acadia lift station, which was a "community of interest" due to the population of 18-to-35-year-olds, which made up more than 70 per cent of COVID-19 cases in November.

The COVID-19 virus wasn't detected the following week.

Gagnon said that while they are doing weekly tests, they are not structured in terms of what days or time the samples are taken. Because of that, it's hard to say why there was a positive result one week and a negative result the next week.

"It really requires a focused sample collection, day in, day out, so you can know what was the true outcome," he said.

"Was it just [a] one-off — someone visited or a bunch of people visited Wolfville — or was that really an accurate result?"

Gagnon said they hope to expand the program and implement more routine sampling.

'We cannot be complacent'

Even if it's unclear how the town got a positive test result, these wastewater tests can act as "a very good early warning system," according to Wolfville Mayor Wendy Donovan.

"If we needed some more information or more reason to be terribly, terribly cautious, this is a good wake-up call for us," she said.

"I felt it was very important to get the testing information out to the community, not to scare people, but just to remind people ... we cannot be complacent."

Donovan said the town's residents, many of them young university students, have been "largely very, very good" with following public health measures.

"I absolutely understand that this is no fun to be 20 years old and not being able to socialize and have parties and so on," said Donovan.

"For the most part, our young people in the community have been respectful of their neighbours and respectful of the situation that we find ourselves in."

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