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North Dakota Senate puts coronavirus wastewater testing bill down the drain

North Dakota Senate puts coronavirus wastewater testing bill down the drain

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North Dakota's Senate on Monday defeated a bill to require a public hearing and a vote before local officials decide to participate in state or national coronavirus wastewater testing.

House Bill 1259, brought by Rep. Matt Ruby, R-Minot, failed 12-35 in the Senate. The House last month had passed it 87-5. 

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said that with the process under the bill, it would take about a month for a local board to take action on proposed wastewater testing.

In the early months of the pandemic, the testing helped supplement lab testing of individual people for COVID-19, she said, adding that the testing also is not intrusive.

"There is absolutely no way any private person's individual body fluids can be identified through this because of the large volumes of water which are tested," Lee said.

Twenty-one cities, including Bismarck and Mandan, are participating in a coronavirus wastewater study begun last July and administered by North Dakota's Department of Environmental Quality. The study was expanded last fall with $675,000 in federal CARES Act coronavirus aid.

Wastewater samples are delivered to North Dakota State University in Fargo for lab analysis of the virus' genetic material, measured as millions of viral particles per person per day.

The testing is an emerging science that is potentially an earlier indicator of active COVID-19 cases than testing of people. Wastewater testing could supplement the public health response and help inform decision-making, supporters say.

Six cities have said no, including Tioga, which the city commission president said last fall was due to residents' worries of perceived intrusion. Other cities declined to participate due to staffing reasons.

State officials are looking to extend the testing through the end of the year and see whether they can identify different variants of COVID-19 in the samples. More federal stimulus money could continue the study beyond June if state officials designate the funding.

The House last month killed a bill to ban wastewater testing.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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