Whitehorse's wastewater being tested for COVID-19 virus

·3 min read
Whitehorse's wastewater being tested for COVID-19 virus
The virus that causes COVID-19 can be found in infected people's feces.
The virus that causes COVID-19 can be found in infected people's feces.

(Steve Silva/CBC - image credit)

The Yukon government is getting some of Whitehorse's wastewater tested for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to internal documents and emails.

The Health Department has not made anyone available for interviews, so what exactly the government is doing has to be pieced together via public records requests. Those usually take weeks for the government to fulfil and don't always include all of the details or the full context.

The first set of samples were collected in early January.

As other Canadian jurisdictions have been doing since earlier into the COVID-19 pandemic, samples are tested for the SARS-CoV-2, traces of which can be found in infected people's feces.

According to a draft version of the background document for the project, the objective is to get an idea of how much of the population has the virus over time.

Because not everyone who gets the coronavirus necessarily finds out, this kind of testing could potentially signal undetected cases.

"Significant changes in data trends may be indicators of outbreaks before this data is represented in clinic data results," the document reads.

"It is anticipated that due to Whitehorse's relatively small clinical data set that this type of correlation will not be statistically significant and should be interpreted and communicated to the public with caution."

Three 250-ml samples are supposed to be collected at least twice a week, and the City of Whitehorse has recommended doing that from the Marwell lift station.

Dianna Hayden, an environmental health officer with the Health Department said in an email sent on Jan. 4 to her colleagues that samples were collected that morning at the station.

"Attaching the sampling bottle to the poles is probably the most difficult part of the sampling. It is set up to use zap straps, which I need to find more of in town. I purchased some duct tape for the interm [sic]," she wrote.

The samples, packed on ice, were shipped that day to Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. According to a shipment tracking notice, it arrived on Jan. 11.

Mike Crawley/CBC
Mike Crawley/CBC

In other emails, Hayden discussed the logistical challenges of making sure the samples were properly refrigerated during the days-long shipping of the samples to the lab.

According to the background document, it's expected that it will take a week after collection for the results to be produced, and data should be collected from January to June of this year.

It also states it's expected that communities will want to start similar programs.

In a Jan. 11 email, Hayden said she wouldn't recommend expanding the project outside of Whitehorse until the logistical challenges are sorted out.

In another email, she said the "MOH's office," which presumably stands for "medical officer of health," had questions about testing buildings' sewage systems.

The buildings were not specified, but the background document lists four buildings in Whitehorse as potential sampling locations: long-term care homes Copper Ridge Place and Whistle Bend Place, an unspecified "shelter," and the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

When contacted by phone on Friday, Hayden referred questions to the department.