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What is wastewater testing for COVID-19?

CSU, in coordination with Larimer County Public Health, has expanded its wastewater testing in Fort Collins to identify COVID-19 viral levels in wastewater coming from businesses and places of residence.

"Wastewater" is the sewage or dirty water from homes and buildings that gets sent to a wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater includes water and anything that goes down a toilet or drain inside a home or other building. A "sewershed" is an area that collects wastewater. In Larimer County, small sewersheds throughout the county are monitored in order to detect whether COVID-19 is present in specific areas of the community.

Many people who have COVID-19 also shed the virus in their stool (poop). Traces of the virus can be detected in poop up to a week before someone starts to have symptoms of COVID-19. This means that wastewater can serve as an early warning signal that COVID-19 is present in a specific community or neighborhood.

How does wastewater testing help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Larimer County?

Wastewater testing is another tool we have available to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in our community. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our community is key to getting students back in school and businesses fully open. Wearing masks, social distancing, staying at home, and avoiding gatherings with people outside of one's own household are important strategies for everyone to be taking right now. By adding wastewater monitoring to Larimer County’s individual testing and contact tracing efforts, we can respond quickly and inform residents to minimize community spread. When we see higher levels of the virus in a smaller sewershed, we can prompt residents to get themselves tested, even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. By detecting an infection early, COVID-19 positive individuals can follow public health guidelines for isolation, and public health can more quickly inform other individuals who may have been close contacts of the person with COVID-19. Acting early helps reduce the number of people exposed to a positive case and stop the onward transmission of the virus. 

Where is wastewater testing being done?

Wastewater testing is currently being performed at municipal treatment plants in Larimer County. Additionally, we are currently monitoring some smaller areas of the county sewershed where there have been higher numbers of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic. We’re hoping that early warnings about elevated levels of COVID-19 in the area will encourage residents to seek testing if they are experiencing symptoms or have been in situations where they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

What should I do if there are elevated levels of COVID-19 in the wastewater near my home? 

First, there is no need to panic. Elevated levels suggest that some unknown number of individuals in your sewershed area may currently have COVID-19. It is not possible for wastewater testing to identify specific individuals who have COVID-19. Wastewater testing only tells us that some people in the area are currently infected and that some are likely to not yet be showing symptoms. 

Does it mean that I have COVID-19 if there are elevated levels of COVID-19 in the wastewater near my home? 

This monitoring is not designed to identify specific cases, but rather locations where public health can direct specific prevention efforts to identify and reduce illness.

If you have been told that elevated levels of COVID-19 virus have recently been found in wastewater in your area, we would encourage you to get tested for COVID-19 if: 

  • You are having symptoms 
  • You recently attended a large get-together
  • You work indoors
  • You work in close proximity to others, especially if masks are not worn
  • You have spent more than 30 minutes at one time indoors in locations other than your home

Testing might not be needed if: 

  • You've been staying at home with the exception of essential trips like grocery shopping and medical appointments.
  • You have been following public health guidelines like wearing masks and social distancing
  • You and your household members only interact with one another. 

For information about getting tested for COVID-19, click here.