CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's been three years since COVID-19 disrupted the world, forcing businesses and educational institutions to temporarily close their doors.
But many neighbors found their new normal amid COVID, including the largest university in the Queen City: UNC Charlotte.
Every week, an environmental field monitoring technician, such as James Bealle, collects wastewater samples on the UNC Charlotte campus.
"We typically get started very early in the morning on the collection," Bealle said.
The samples are taken to labs on the campus grounds, where researchers run tests for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The university started using this wastewater testing method in fall 2020, when students were returning to campus and dorms. The surveillance helped UNC Charlotte leaders identify dorm buildings vulnerable to a possible COVID outbreak.
Scientists say the samples were effective, because people shed the virus in their stool before they likely knew they had COVID. The wastewater results put UNC Charlotte in position to respond quickly to the virus and get ahead of a potential outbreak, helping to keep the college up and running at the height of the pandemic.
Cynthia Gibas serves as a UNC Charlotte professor in the Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics. She's also co-director of the university's viral surveillance sequencing lab.
Gibas is one of the primary designers of the university's wastewater testing program. She says the surveillance was one part of the university's early mitigation efforts to combat COVID.
"We started sampling our on-campus wastewater to give feedback to our emergency operations group," Gibas said. "[There were] several different things going on at once: We were testing wastewater, the student health center was testing people who came in symptomatic, there was a contact tracing team, and all of us were working together."
Gibas says wastewater monitoring was a successful tool for mitigating COVID, because it alerted leaders to dorm buildings where students possibly needed to be quarantined and tested.
"When we were finding students and cases in these monitored buildings, we would find one or two of them where we saw a wastewater signal and then that cluster was done," Gibas said. "If we saw them in our on-campus, unmonitored buildings, the clusters had time to get bigger before there was any response or [before] those students got into isolation. So it was really effective."
Gibas says wastewater surveillance helped make the university's COVID response smoother for students.
"Instead of testing every person on campus a couple times a week, we were testing buildings couple times a week and only making people come in to get tested if we found something that indicated somebody was sick, so that was a lot less burden on the students," Gibas said.
She also says the surveillance method was a more cost-effective approach for university leaders to use, compared to testing students regularly for COVID.
"It was financially a lot less burden on the university, it saves a lot of money if you can do it this way," Gibas said.
Like many colleges and universities, UNC Charlotte's COVID restrictions have eased, in part due to vaccinations.
However, the wastewater surveillance is still going strong, allowing the university to monitor COVID.
"We're still [conducting wastewater] monitoring at 17 dorms and another 20 locations on campus that are common buildings," Gibas said.
Gibas says students and staff members can monitor the virus levels, based on the wastewater sites, on the university's wastewater testing dashboard. She says people can use this information to determine what safety precautions they'll want to take next.
"We have the tools now. We have a whole lot of information about where there might be COVID spreading," Gibas said.
Gibas says the university has expanded its wastewater monitoring sites off campus.
"We monitor some sites that we're just setting up with North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Cabarrus Health Alliance that are out in the county surrounding Mecklenburg," Gibas says. "We're going to be contributing those to the NCDHHS wastewater monitoring dashboard over the next year and a half, so they'll have more information from this area. We've really expanded more campus coverage and more coverage in the region."
UNC Charlotte also partnered with the county to conduct wastewater sampling in select neighborhoods. It's part of a unified effort to keep more communities safer.