State of Michigan COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Pilot Project

Launch the COVID-19 wastewater grants interactive mapProject Goals and Objectives

The Michigan Departments of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) are coordinating with wastewater utilities, local health departments, universities, and laboratories on a statewide COVID-19 wastewater surveillance feasibility pilot project.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can result in serious illness or death and is easily spread from person to person. It is caused by a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Public health agencies within Michigan have been employing an aggressive strategy of identifying people infected with COVID-19 and their close contacts to break community transmission of the virus. Timeliness of identifying the presence of the virus in the community is crucial for the success of this strategy, particularly as people can be infectious before they show symptoms of the disease.

The goal of the project is to more rapidly detect the circulation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus within specific communities by sampling and testing wastewater in sewers and at wastewater treatment plants for the presence of the virus. The pilot is designed to achieve the following objectives:

  • Confirm the presence of the virus, identify trends related to spread of the virus, and potentially forecast the burden on local health resources based on virus data;
  • Inform local and statewide healthcare and public health response stakeholders on the progression of the virus;
  • Provide data that will help design and support local testing strategies;
  • Potentially decrease the requirement for individual testing at congregate facilities such as prisons, dormitories, and long-term care facilities.

Other important goals of this project are to standardize wastewater sampling and laboratory analysis; develop common methodology to ensure consistent public health interpretation and communication of the data; and creation of tools for the rapid sharing of testing data between state and local health officials and other stakeholders.

A cement sewer with a machine to log water level hanging in the opening
A machine called a 'Levelogger' hanging in a sewer opening; this machine records water level to identify periods of low and high flows.

Pilot Project Design

Research in the United States and other countries has determined that SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA can be detected in wastewater, as the virus is shed in human feces for potentially up to 30-40 days. The early detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, as part of a comprehensive COVID-19 surveillance system, could help identify a new emergence of infection in a community, monitor the level of virus in different areas across the state, monitor virus in facilities with vulnerable populations within a specific sewershed (providing earlier detection and reducing need for repeated testing of humans in the facility), and provide timely information to inform response plans at state and local levels to curtail transmission. Since nearly 70 percent of Michigan residents rely on public wastewater systems, surveillance of such systems has the potential to provide data on a large proportion of the Michigan population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with agencies throughout the federal government, is already initiating a National Wastewater Surveillance System in response to the pandemic.

WSU staff standing around manholes to identify and gain access to sampling locationsWayne State University's Civil and Environmental Engineer program working with colleagues in campus housing and facilities to identify and gain access to sampling locations.

Wastewater entering sewage pipes or wastewater treatment plants is sampled for SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA pieces. The wastewater comes from homes or buildings in the corresponding service areas and represents sewage from the total number of people in that area, not individual people. Samples for this project can either be a mixed wastewater sample (24-hour composite) or a point-in-time grab sample, depending on the sample location. Samples are analyzed by a laboratory to determine the number of virus gene copies present, which are then compared to the wastewater flow that occurred on the sample day and the population that contributed to the flow. It is important to note that the water discharged from wastewater treatment plants is treated to remove viruses and bacteria, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and is monitored to meet all state and federal discharge limits.

Testing of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 can identify and quantify the virus in wastewater systems serving varying populations and demographics. Depending on the turnaround time of the laboratory, results can be available up to seven days prior to routine notification of clinical test results to public health agencies. As an example, Michigan State University (MSU) recently conducted local monitoring of wastewater, which identified a spike in SARS-CoV-2 one week before clinical and public health identification of a COVID-19 outbreak in East Lansing related to a local restaurant.

More specifically, an existing laboratory methodology called digital droplet (ddPCR) is being adapted by laboratories worldwide, including those involved in this project, to conduct SARS-CoV-2 wastewater testing. The ddPCR can detect and quantify RNA in a sample; therefore, it can determine the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as the amount of the virus.

Other Information

Pilot Project Sampling and Testing Locations

EGLE has entered into 20 grants with local partners to conduct analysis of an estimated 6,600 samples at approximately 270 sites across the state by December 30, 2020. 

State of Michigan Coronavirus Website – Wastewater Surveillance