Bozeman Wastewater Treatment Plant

BOZEMAN, Mont. - As case numbers rise in Gallatin County, experts are using a surprising resource to keep track of COVID-19. Sewers, while not exactly glamorous, have proven to be a key part of tracking COVID-19 in Gallatin County.

"The whole point of this is to help us find cases so that we can get people isolated who have the disease and its spread, so if this helps us in that path that's great," says Matt Kelley, Gallatin City-County Health Department's Health Officer.

What researchers are finding is that wastewater testing and individual patient tests go hand-in-hand. With a rise in cases, researchers generally see a rise in the detection levels of the virus in the wastewater.

"What we've learned is that it's a pretty good indicator of what's happening in the community," says Blake Wiedenheft, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University, of wastewater testing.

Researchers at Montana State University, like Wiedenheft, started taking samples from Bozeman's wastewater in march, and say it's helped build a system of checks and balances for health officials.

As Kelley explains: "If for some reason we're testing the wrong people or we're not testing enough but all of a sudden we start seeing rising numbers in the wastewater, that could be an indication for us to look more carefully, to look differently."

In early May, when cases were leveling out both statewide and in Gallatin County, coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 levels weren't even detectable in Bozeman wastewater.

But in the past month, Gallatin County has seen 123 new cases and wastewater samples in much of the county have been on the same course.

In the last month and a half, researchers have expanded their testing to West Yellowstone, Three Forks, and Big Sky.

"I think wastewater testing is something that should probably be implemented nationwide," says Wiedenheft. "You're seeing different countries around the world start to do that and I think with limited resources - limited number of tests that are available - by testing a single sample we get a better sense of what's going on in a community."

The city of Belgrade is also in talks to get its wastewater tested, but it's facing some challenges, including funding, equipment, and lab capacity issues.

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