Wastewater testing may help San Diego County form school reopening plan

Posted at 1:24 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 16:24:55-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — County public health officials and UC San Diego are working together on a program to test wastewater at schools and childcare centers, which could lead to a plan to get students back in class safely.

For the last four months, the partnership's Safer at School Early Alert program has collected daily wastewater samples from 10 schools and two childcare centers within communities at the highest risk for COVID-19, including San Ysidro, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Southeastern San Diego, and Vista.

The samples are tested for shed coronavirus, which an asymptomatic person or someone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms can leave behind in fecal samples.

"We know that through the pandemic, the educational gap has grown wider – often in our communities hardest hit by the pandemic," said County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher. "In my discussions with UCSD researchers and my COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group, it became clear that there were lower-cost alternatives to regular testing that would allow for some of those most impacted students to return to school safely. Through this pilot and funding through the federal CARES Act appropriated by the Board, we have been able to test out new testing options. It is my hope that we could scale up this program."

Via wastewater testing and surface monitoring, the tests alert officials to the presence of COVID-19 particles and, when combined with responsive testing, can help quickly identify children or staff infected with the virus before an outbreak occurs.

The program is made up of three elements: wastewater samples collected and tested at UC San Diego School of Medicine, daily swabbing of floors for virus particles, and free PCR testing. Childcare sites also send used diapers to the lab for testing.

Daily surface monitoring is done by teachers or staff who swab a one-square-foot section of the center of the classroom, where aerosols tend to settle. Children and staff voluntarily undergo a PCR test at their school or childcare center in response to a positive result in wastewater or surface monitoring.

"The safe reopening of schools remains a priority for the County of San Diego," said Wilma Wooten, county public health officer. "What UC San Diego has demonstrated with the Safer at School Early Alert pilot program models the types of steps that can help us ease back into classroom education while continuing to fight the virus."