Fulton testing wastewater for COVID-19, monkeypox

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Patrick Person on Tuesday held up a 500 milliliter bottle that represented hundreds of thousands of people.

The clear bottle held raw wastewater set to be packaged and sent to a California lab that will quantify how serious the outbreaks of COVID-19 and monkeypox are in Fulton County, said Person, who manages Fulton’s water lab.

Aside from emitting eau de cow pasture, Fulton’s four facilities are the perfect places for Emory University to gather data that is anonymized but region-specific about viral counts.

Fulton officials quickly agreed when Emory approached with a grant-funded program that would test the water for COVID-19, and now monkeypox, at no cost to taxpayers.

Because while we play on our phones perched atop the porcelain throne, we are shedding cells that contain information about our health and what viruses lurk inside. The water was clear because, remember: Beyond what you flush, this also includes sink runoff and water discarded from washing machines.

Like the water, the reason for testing the samples is surprisingly clear: Officials say this data is needed now more than ever despite being two and a half years in to the pandemic.

At-home tests have done wonders for people wanting to keep others safe, but that progress has led to waste: The lack of people reporting when they test positive at home means inaccurate data for the county, which has tested 2.5 million people for COVID-19.

County Commission Chair Robb Pitts told a group of reporters outside the Camp Creek Water Reclamation Facility that policymakers like himself could trust the data more when the government was the only source of testing. County Manager Dick Anderson said the current case numbers could reflect under-reporting by a factor of 10.

That means the future of school openings and mask mandates may depend upon your poop.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February started gathering wastewater samples all over the country to test for COVID-19.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

About a dozen counties in Georgia have joined the program, according to a CDC map. Fulton’s Emory-run program is not included in that count. There are more than 900 sewage treatment facilities across Georgia, according to previous reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fulton’s director of public works, David Clark, said they began testing for COVID-19 this month and two weeks ago for monkeypox.

Counties have long tested samples daily, but it became even more crucial with COVID-19. Just the Camp Creek site alone services between 89,000 to 100,000 people, Person said.

The sample he took will be shipped to a lab in California, and the results will return in a couple days. Then, he said, the data will be posted about a week later online at: www.publichealth.verily.com.

“This gives our policymakers an idea of what’s going on ... out in the public,” he said.