MDH, U of M to take over wastewater monitoring, hope to test for viruses beyond COVID-19

Minnesota is making a move to update its COVID-19 wastewater reporting system in hopes that the changes will centralize the system and also check for other viruses.

Starting Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) said its public health lab and the University of Minnesota Medical School will take over wastewater testing from the Metropolitan Council and the U of M’s Genomics Center (UMGC).

For the past few years, the Met Council and UMGC have worked together to test and publish weekly reports about the prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in wastewater entering the Metro Plant in St. Paul.

As COVID-19’s impact has waned, the reports have become more important because the use of at-home tests has increased and at-home test results aren’t typically reported to public health departments, leaving MDH’s COVID updates unable to paint the full picture of the virus’ prevalence in the state.

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With the new approach, MDH hopes to expand the early viral detection system into Greater Minnesota, providing a more sustainable and far-reaching system for the state.

“As we address the long-term management of COVID-19 in our communities, we are updating how wastewater surveillance is done in the state,” MDH Commissioner Dr. Brooke Cunningham said in a prepared statement. “The new approach will provide better statewide data for COVID-19 as well as future monitoring for other viruses.”

MDH says those other viruses could include respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as well as influenza A and B. However, MDH and the U of M are still working to verify methods that will allow them to test wastewater samples for those viruses.

“Going forward, the synergy between MDH and UMN will be a force multiplying effort that serves as an early warning system for pathogens that impact public health,” said Mark Osborn, study lead and an assistant professor at the U of M Medical School.

In the meantime, the public dashboard on wastewater monitoring will continue to be updated, the health department says.

“The work of analyzing and reporting on the prevalence of the SARS CoV-2 virus in the region’s wastewater has been important and rewarding,” Met Council Environmental Services Division Director Leisa Thompson said. “We’ve learned so much about how wastewater surveillance can and will contribute to public health. The Council will continue to participate in this vital partnership, by continuing to provide samples from an abundance of wastewater that we collect and treat.”