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Dr. Erin Lipp handles samples of wastewater from the three water reclamation plants in the Athens area on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at the environmental health sciences building in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

The University of Georgia’s wastewater surveillance program will increase its testing capacity thanks in part to a new contract with the Athens-Clarke County government, lead researcher Erin Lipp said Friday.  

Lipp and her team of three environmental health science Ph.D. students have tested wastewater samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, since May. They currently use samples from three Athens wastewater reclamation facilities but would like to test upstream to pinpoint potential outbreaks to specific buildings or communities. 

The contract with the ACC government doesn’t guarantee building-level testing, but it allows UGA to start looking at the possibility, Lipp said. This week, the researchers began collecting samples on Mondays and Wednesdays. They previously only collected the 24-hour composite sample on Tuesdays. 

There are more than 65 American colleges testing wastewater to better monitor the spread of COVID-19, according to an NPR analysis. An increase in the viral load in wastewater predates an increase in reported cases by several days, according to the CDC. 

Last week, students in the Graduate Living Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology received an email imploring them to get tested after Georgia Tech’s researchers detected SARS-CoV-2 in the building’s wastewater, according to an email obtained by The Red & Black. 

A loose collaborative network has already formed between those involved in wastewater testing. UGA’s researchers are in a Slack group with over 900 people from across the world. There, scientists, wastewater utility workers, health experts and corporate employees exchange ideas and methods. 

“We’re building the ship as it sails, as they say,” Lipp said. “People have been very open about things that have been working and not working.” 

UGA’s researchers learned they have a good data set during conversations with researchers from other college towns, Ph.D student Megan Lott said. They will present their most recent data on Wednesday morning to a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative network, Lott said. 

The viral load in Athens’ wastewater facilities has remained relatively steady since a steep increase in September. Lipp’s team wants to communicate their findings as clearly as possible to decision makers and the community. Lipp has been in contact with the Northeast Georgia Health District 10. 

The ACC government sees the wastewater surveillance data as complementary to COVID-19 data from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Lipp said. 

ACC manager Blaine Williams didn’t respond to an interview request as of press time.