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U of M Medical School researcher turns to sewage samples to track coronavirus at Duluth campus

Dr. Glenn Simmons Jr. works in his biomedicine lab in Duluth. Simmons is researching community COVID-19 tracing through wastewater samples. Photo: KSTP. Dr. Glenn Simmons Jr. works in his biomedicine lab in Duluth. Simmons is researching community COVID-19 tracing through wastewater samples.

KSTP
Updated: June 09, 2020 12:20 PM
Created: June 06, 2020 10:05 PM

When thinking about COVID-19 testing, nose swabs usually come to mind. But it turns out that's just the start.

Dr. Glenn Simmons Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School on the Duluth campus, says he's been watching the struggles with coronavirus testing — from the shortage of test kits to the asymptomatic carriers who don't even know they're infected — and he thinks he's found a different approach.

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"We noticed there was a significant amount of evidence that indicated that patients had gastrointestinal issues and shed virus through their stool," Simmons said.

That's right. They're checking sewage for COVID-19.

Simmons is working with wastewater treatment plants in about two dozen municipalities across Minnesota to collect weekly samples. He then evaluates them at his biomedical sciences lab in Duluth.

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Over time, he hopes to track the trends: which communities are most heavily affected by the virus and which ones are on the decline. He even thinks it could be possible to predict where the next big outbreak will crop up.

"We may actually be seeing what's happening before an individual even thinks they need to get tested," Simmons said.

The researchers can't trace any samples back to a specific house or toilet, so privacy isn't an issue.

Simmons said he will share any data he collects with the Minnesota Department of Health so officials can redirect resources to communities with high rates of infection. He also said other states are contacting him for input on similar studies.


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