Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 on College Campuses: Initial Efforts, Lessons Learned, and Research Needs
3.1. Case Study Institutions
3.2. Origins and Organization of Wastewater Monitoring on Campus
3.3. Description of Wastewater Monitoring Approaches
3.4. Reporting and Use of Wastewater Monitoring Data for Campus Decision-Making
3.5. Key Elements of Progress and Ongoing Challenges
- Collaboration: Nearly all respondents praised cooperation among faculty, facilities staff, university administration, and, in several cases, the staff of wastewater treatment facilities. One faculty member noted the wastewater monitoring effort had led to “amazing collaborations and research opportunities that normally do not fall in my scope of work.” Respondents also reported new partnerships with other colleges, community leaders, and government agencies (e.g., public works and public health). Several noted that communicating with practitioners at other colleges helped them create successful workflows. One respondent noted that “there has been an incredibly collegial attitude about wastewater testing during the pandemic; it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before!”
- Student engagement: Several of the colleges that engaged students in sampling and analysis highlighted students’ enthusiasm and learning experiences as a benefit. One student who was involved in her college’s wastewater surveillance noted an “immense feeling of pride and satisfaction…. The knowledge and skill set I have developed are so valuable, and the work we did will make such a difference for our community and the environment!”  Others noted that students contributed insights about campus behaviors (e.g., location of parties) that informed wastewater sampling locations, and helped spread the word to others about the value of the wastewater monitoring program.
- Motivated staff: Many respondents praised the involvement of “amazing” staff. One respondent suggested that it was most productive to find the people on campus who were “eager and willing” to help with wastewater monitoring, whatever their role, and work with them to collect samples.
- Support from college administration: Administrators who supported college wastewater monitoring efforts with resources—including financial support, staff time, and release from teaching obligations—were vital. Several administrators adapted the college’s policies to address urgent needs and streamline slow-moving bureaucratic processes. As one respondent reflected, “universities are not flexible enough to handle the rapid and nimble responses required to address a pandemic (e.g., hiring and purchasing processes), so you need to have the president’s support to help bend rules and find work-arounds to get things done.” Respondents also noted that high-level support was helpful because the steep learning curve of wastewater surveillance often resulted in unexpected challenges, delays, and costs. As one respondent said, “Be prepared to pay overtime.”
- Problem-solving and adaptation: Finding creative solutions to local challenges was a hallmark of many of the college wastewater monitoring efforts. Respondents reported adapting to changing student population sizes and living situations, developing innovative approaches to sample from less-accessible sewers, and identifying work-arounds to supply-chain disruptions. In addition, many respondents noted they improved analytical methods in the laboratory to gain greater sensitivity, reduce turn-around time for results, and reduce costs. Many local solutions were made possible by support from collaborative networks with practitioners from other colleges and wastewater agencies.
- Supply chain delays: Multiple respondents noted delays resulting from limited availability of autosampler pumps, centrifuge equipment, and RNA extraction kits.
- Obtaining representative samples: Even with composite sampling, obtaining representative samples at the dormitory scale is challenging due to issues with non-homogenous wastewater (variable fecal concentration), low-flow conditions, and autosampler intake clogging.
- Collection system logistics: The ease of wastewater sampling depends on the college’s physical layout. For example, mapping sewer pipes and installing autosamplers in the plumbing of older campuses may be more logistically challenging due to the age and complexity of their sewer systems. Other colleges had to obtain special permits to lift manhole covers in city streets to obtain wastewater samples, figure out how to safely enter a confined sewer space, and protect autosamplers from theft or vandalism.
- Developing laboratory methods: Many college laboratories faced challenges developing appropriate techniques for concentration, extraction, and data analysis. As one respondent noted, “There are so many little lessons learned from making mistakes… there is going to be trial and error.”
- Safety protocols: Researchers are still unsure how persistent infective SARS-CoV-2 is in wastewater , leading to uncertainty about the necessary levels of laboratory disinfection, equipment cleaning, and protective equipment required by personnel to collect and analyze samples. Biosafety protocols posed a hurdle for many college laboratories.
- Timing: In order to effectively inform decisions (e.g., follow-up testing of students), wastewater monitoring results need to be available quickly. Although sample processing time was typically under 12 h, sample collection, lab workflows, shipping, and staffing limitations often delayed availability of results.
- Scaling up from research to production: Many colleges initiated wastewater surveillance through pilot-scale research projects. The complexity of expanding to campus-wide monitoring was frequently underestimated. Associated challenges included human resources, training, biosafety regulations, supplies, equipment, and space as they scaled up their efforts.
- “There is a huge amount of value in getting negative results out of dorms, and that is underestimated. Every time I get a zero [no detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from wastewater] that is a comfort. There could be a case there that wasn’t caught, but there’s a very low probability that an actual outbreak is occurring.”
- “The director of our regional health department said our college’s wastewater monitoring has ‘protected our community from wider spread infections’.”
- “Wastewater testing allows use of limited testing resources to maximum benefit.”
- “We successfully stopped an outbreak based on this surveillance.”
- “Wastewater testing gave us a short, advanced warning of our outbreak, enough to mobilize mass testing and request additional resources. It probably gained us a few days in identifying and isolating students.”
- “The benefit to cost ratio is huge.”
- “Wastewater is a major piece of the puzzle in preventing outbreaks in the dorms…. I truly believe the tremendous efforts of the individuals who have worked on these projects controlled outbreaks, kept campuses open, and most likely saved lives.”
3.6. A Process-Oriented Framework for Wastewater Surveillance
3.7. Information Needs
3.8. Wastewater Infrastructure
3.9. Sampling Plan
3.10. Wastewater Analysis Options
3.11. Data Interpretation and Use
3.12. Communication Plan
3.13. Evaluation and Adaptation
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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|College Name||Location City||State||Total 2019 Enrollment||Public/Private||Fall 2020 Courses|
|Colorado College||Colorado Springs||CO||2270||private||hybrid|
|Colorado State University||Fort Collins||CO||33,996||public||hybrid|
|Oregon State University (system)||Multiple||OR||28,886||public||remote|
|St. John Fisher College||Rochester||NY||3647||private||hybrid|
|Tulane University||New Orleans||LA||14,602||private||in-person|
|University of Arizona||Tucson||AZ||45,918||public||hybrid|
|University of California Berkeley||Berkeley||CA||42,347||public||remote|
|University of California Davis||Davis||CA||39,629||public||hybrid|
|University California San Diego||San Diego||CA||38,396||public||hybrid|
|University of Connecticut||Mansfield||CT||32,333||public||hybrid|
|University of Georgia||Athens||GA||38,920||public||hybrid|
|University of Idaho||Moscow||ID||10,791||public||hybrid|
|University of Maine (system)||Multiple||ME||35,337||public||in-person|
|University of Massachusetts Amherst||Amherst||MA||49,617||public||hybrid|
|University of Massachusetts Lowell||Lowell||MA||18,338||public||hybrid|
|University of New Hampshire||Durham||NH||14,509||public||hybrid|
|University of Notre Dame||Notre Dame||IN||11,836||private||hybrid|
|Utah State University (system)||Multiple||UT||27,691||public||hybrid|
|Wayne State University||Detroit||MI||26,251||public||hybrid|
|College Name||Laboratory Analysis (On- or Off-Campus)||Number |
of Sites Sampled
|Frequency of Sampling (Number per/Week)||Start Date of Sampling (2020)||Sample Collection (Grab or Composite)||Data |
|Clemson University||off||17 ∆∆||2 ∆||May||both||public|
|Colorado College||off||2||2||Sept.||grab *||college|
|Colorado State University||on||17||3||August||composite||college|
|Hope College||on||11||5 ∆||August||composite||college|
|Oregon State University System||on||27||2||Sept.||composite||college|
|St. John Fisher College||off||8||2||August||composite||public|
|SUNY Morrisville||off||9||2 ∆||July||composite||public|
|Tulane University||on||12 ∆∆||1∆||August||grab||college|
|University of Arizona||on||18||3||August||grab||college|
|University of California Berkeley||on||3||3 ∆||August||composite||public|
|University of California Davis||on||21||2 ∆||August||composite||college|
|University of California San Diego||on||68||7||Oct.||composite||college|
|University of Connecticut||on||16||5||June||composite||college|
|University of Georgia||on||3||2||May||composite||public|
|University of Idaho||on||10||2||Sept.||both||college|
|University of Maine System||on||3||1||August||composite||public|
|University of Massachusetts Amherst||on||10||2 ∆||August||composite||public|
|University of Massachusetts Lowell||on||2||2||Oct.||grab *||college|
|University of New Hampshire||on||10||3||August||grab||college|
|University of Notre Dame||on||1||7||August||composite||college|
|Utah State University System||on||32||2||July||composite||public|
|Wayne State University||on||9||2||Oct.||grab **||public|
|Framework Element||Key Question||Factors for Consideration|
|Information needs||Who will use the information? What information do those users need from wastewater?|
|Wastewater infrastructure||How can the sewage infrastructure be accessed?|
|Sampling plan||How can we sample wastewater?|
|Wastewater analysis||Who can analyze and interpret wastewater samples?|
|Data Interpretation and use||How can findings inform decisions?|
|Communication plan||What is the most effective way to share findings with appropriate audiences?|
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Harris-Lovett, S.; Nelson, K.L.; Beamer, P.; Bischel, H.N.; Bivins, A.; Bruder, A.; Butler, C.; Camenisch, T.D.; De Long, S.K.; Karthikeyan, S.; Larsen, D.A.; Meierdiercks, K.; Mouser, P.J.; Pagsuyoin, S.; Prasek, S.M.; Radniecki, T.S.; Ram, J.L.; Roper, D.K.; Safford, H.; Sherchan, S.P.; Shuster, W.; Stalder, T.; Wheeler, R.T.; Korfmacher, K.S. Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 on College Campuses: Initial Efforts, Lessons Learned, and Research Needs. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 4455. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094455
Harris-Lovett S, Nelson KL, Beamer P, Bischel HN, Bivins A, Bruder A, Butler C, Camenisch TD, De Long SK, Karthikeyan S, Larsen DA, Meierdiercks K, Mouser PJ, Pagsuyoin S, Prasek SM, Radniecki TS, Ram JL, Roper DK, Safford H, Sherchan SP, Shuster W, Stalder T, Wheeler RT, Korfmacher KS. Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 on College Campuses: Initial Efforts, Lessons Learned, and Research Needs. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021; 18(9):4455. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094455Chicago/Turabian Style
Harris-Lovett, Sasha, Kara L. Nelson, Paloma Beamer, Heather N. Bischel, Aaron Bivins, Andrea Bruder, Caitlyn Butler, Todd D. Camenisch, Susan K. De Long, Smruthi Karthikeyan, David A. Larsen, Katherine Meierdiercks, Paula J. Mouser, Sheree Pagsuyoin, Sarah M. Prasek, Tyler S. Radniecki, Jeffrey L. Ram, D. Keith Roper, Hannah Safford, Samendra P. Sherchan, William Shuster, Thibault Stalder, Robert T. Wheeler, and Katrina Smith Korfmacher. 2021. "Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 on College Campuses: Initial Efforts, Lessons Learned, and Research Needs" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 9: 4455. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094455