Cal Poly will implement a new wastewater testing system by mid-January to test for COVID-19 in on-campus housing.

University President Jeffrey Armstrong outlined the wastewater testing system in a campus-wide email on Sept. 24, 2020. Armstrong explained that the COVID-19 fragments in fecal matter can be detected earlier than in normal testing. 

Video by Matthew Bornhorst 

Aydin Nazmi, Presidential Faculty Fellow for COVID-19 Response and Preparedness, said that the campus collects wastewater through water samplers, which are containers. Nazmi said that five samplers collect the wastewater from a cluster of five different residence halls, which is around 500 students per sampler.

The clusters amount to more than one building, which means that if the water sample from a cluster tests positive, then all the housing within that cluster will have to be tested, Nazmi said.

Nazmi added that automatic samplers are placed near sewer manhole covers that have tubes that run down to the sewer. These tubes are on a schedule to suck up the wastewater, which is then stored in a jug. The wastewater is then tested in the lab for COVID-19.

The sampling machines arrived the week of Jan. 4, which caused some delays with having the testing available for the start of the winter quarter. This was due to high demand nationwide. The process will be completely ready and working by mid-January, according to Nazmi. 

The purpose of this testing is to quickly find out when COVID-19 is present in a specific population, which will then allow Cal Poly to give individual tests. It allows the school to quarantine students earlier, Nazmi said.

Nazmi said that Pat Fidopiastis, a faculty member in the biological sciences department, will conduct the tests in the wastewater. The turnaround time on the test is about 24 hours.

Candace Winstead, a microbiology and immunology professor, explained that wastewater testing works if it can pick up spikes of infection early, which allows people to quarantine, test and contact trace. However, she added that in California and San Luis Obispo the COVID-19 positive rate is extremely high. This means that depending on how sensitive and quantitative the sewage test is, it might all test positive

Winstead added that if cases were to decrease within the next month or two then it would be much more helpful. 

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