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Sewage backup: JEA wastewater testing program stalls before COVID-19 trends appear

A JEA program to test sewage for the coronavirus is on hold after lab supplies run short. Nine of 10 samples tested negative before the program went on hiatus.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Researchers tracking the spread of the coronavirus through the city’s wastewater pipes hit a blockage earlier this month due to a shortage of testing supplies.

JEA began testing wastewater for COVID-19 in May, in hopes that the virus could alert officials to a possible second wave of the pandemic.

But just 10 samples into the trial, the Arizona lab doing the testing has run short of supplies, temporarily halting the program.

The delay comes as Florida is be headed toward a second peak of infections.

JEA joined two dozen utilities around the country in collecting wastewater samples to be tested for concentrations of the coronavirus. Liter-sized sewage samples were collected twice weekly at the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility in Ortega, frozen, then shipped to a lab at the University of Arizona.

Sewage samples can’t show how many people have the illness, but they can offer a real-time look at contagion, including virus carried by Covid-positive people who are asymptomatic.

Unfortunately, the testing program was halted before any trends could be discerned.

“The point of the testing is to identify trends,” JEA spokesperson Gina Kyle told First Coast News. “So far, 10 samples have been tested. Nine have come back negative, and one has come back with a detection. Until more testing is completed, there really aren’t any conclusions that can be drawn, and unfortunately the University of Arizona is waiting on a backorder of supplies required to continue testing.”

The 10 samples tested were drawn between May 6 and June 7.

The utility has continued to collect samples, but testing is on hold until the University of Arizona can either find the needed equipment or develop an alternative method of testing.

Kyle says the nine samples that came back “negative” showed virus levels below the detection limit.  

“The last test of a JEA sample occurred on 6/7/2020,” she said in an email. “Testing is temporarily on hold because of difficulty finding materials needed for the analysis. The University of Arizona lab checked several distributors and at the moment manufacturers are trying to source raw material components. U of A is now testing a different test protocol and if that proves to be acceptable, they anticipate being able to resume testing in a few weeks.”

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