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North Dakota COVID-19 wastewater study indicates trend similar to 2020

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During a Budget Section meeting on June 22 at the state Capitol in Bismarck, State Environmental Quality Director Dave Glatt answers questions from state lawmakers about accepting federal coronavirus relief funds to be used for COVID-19 wastewater testing at municipal water treatment plants.

Wastewater testing of 18 cities in North Dakota shows a similar rise in COVID-19 cases as during the same period in 2020, but with the highly contagious delta variant at play.

Levels of the virus in wastewater have tracked closely to rising clinical cases, according to state Department of Environmental Quality Director Dave Glatt. 

"It is primarily the delta variant that we're seeing," he said last week.

The wastewater testing, done at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is "a piece of the pie" for tracking virus cases, supplemental to clinical testing of people, he said.

"We're just into the beginning phases of starting to see those numbers inch up, and hopefully they don't get as high as last year," Glatt said. "But it is concerning that we're seeing the increase in the infectious rate." 

The monitoring has been especially insightful when testing of people is low, and the wastewater testing picks up increased levels of the virus, indicating increasing cases, he said.

The current trend is "quite similar to this time last year," NDSU Microbiological Sciences Professor and Department Head John McEvoy said.

Bismarck in recent weeks has seen "significant increases" in the virus's prevalence in wastewater, as has Mandan, he said. Lab testing backs up the trend, with confirmed active COVID-19 cases in Burleigh-Morton counties in that time span nearly doubling.

The delta variant is "the only variant that we see right now" in the testing, he said.

The wastewater study began in July 2020 with $65,000 in federal CARES Act aid and was expanded last fall with $675,000 of repurposed federal aid. 

Participating cities in addition to Bismarck and Mandan are Carrington, Casselton, Devils Lake, Fargo, Garrison, Gwinner, Harvey, Horace, Jamestown, Minot, New Rockford, Valley City, Wahpeton, Watford City, West Fargo and Williston.

Some cities said no to participating due to staffing reasons or residents' worries of perceived intrusion.

The 2021 Legislature left the study's future in doubt by not approving any money for it despite multiple requests by Environmental Quality, and ultimately giving intent that the agency find federal funds.

Some lawmakers have opposed the testing as intrusive. The Legislature defeated two bills to ban or restrict wastewater testing.

The Legislature's Budget Section in June approved $1.15 million in repurposed CARES Act money, including $750,000 to take the program through Dec. 31. The remaining $400,000 is to cover outstanding expenses for the study.

Cities' wastewater is sampled two to five times a week. Fargo is sampled five times a week; Bismarck and Mandan are sampled four times a week.

McEvoy said the testing's value is in its representation of viral transmission within a community, independent of whether people are individually tested. More than a year of data collection has boosted researchers' confidence in the method's effectiveness, he said.

"From one sample, you can tell what's happening in a community in a given point in time, and I think that's useful," especially as people might grow "fed up" with testing, he said.

Glatt said Environmental Quality is considering whether and how to continue the study into 2022, and working on how to provide the data to community leaders for decision making.

"In a perfect world, I would love to have this behind us and we have no more infections and December is just great," he said. "I don't think it's going to track that way. It's going to be with us for a while, and so we're going to start those conversations of what do we do come January? Do we continue on testing? Is NDSU going to be part of the mix? I know they've been integral in this and they've been excellent to work with."

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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