Protecting Students on Campus with Early Outbreak Warnings: WBE in Action

August 30, 2023

The global health landscape has been significantly impacted by the emergence and spread of several viral diseases, including Influenza A and B (flu), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and Coronavirus (COVID-19). For the first time, we have vaccines available for all three of these viruses, but we are also facing the increased risk that these viruses will circulate simultaneously or concurrently, not only upending daily life but posing a serious health risk to millions of people across the country.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw first-hand how campus outbreaks led to a disruption of in-person classes and forced extended campus lockdowns. Given the highly infectious character of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 illness, socializing and communal living at college campuses provided an ideal setting for the contagion, which spread quickly in dorms and off-campus housing. Now, with the persistent threats of flu and RSV along with COVID-19, the importance of preventive measures has become more critical in these close-knit communities where screening is inconsistent and risk tolerance is generally lower.

An Innovative and Accurate Early Warning System

Based on our learnings from leveraging wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) technology to monitor for SARS-CoV-2, dorm wastewater has proven to be an ideal area for testing in colleges that extends to flu and RSV. Wastewater is unbiased and comprehensive, testing anyone on campus who uses a toilet, and capable of delivering building-level insights to inform campus safety measures and health interventions. WBE offers key advantages, including:

  • Early warning signals that give several days lead time to testing, symptoms, and clinic visits.
  • Reliable results that are significantly more cost-effective and rapid compared to testing individual students regularly, even when more focused screening follow-ups and other surveillance data are required.
  • Consistent data over time delivered through a non-intrusive testing approach that enables campuses to understand variations in disease presence and when to act.

Wastewater surveillance on campuses has emerged as an important primary method for monitoring viral diseases as screening programs have eased with the end of the national public health emergency, helping to protect college students, faculty, and staff against infection.

Leveraging Wastewater Data for Education and Behavior Change

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Clemson University was an early adopter of WBE to understand the virus on campus and ensure actions like mask mandates were in place when needed. The wastewater data provided Clemson officials several days of lead time before they would start to see clinical case counts increase–critical time to educate students and take action. This allowed Clemson time to act in order to prevent large COVID-19 outbreaks from spreading across campus. It was also helpful in preventing spread to the larger community. “As an infectious disease epidemiologist, I think wastewater is a fantastic tool,” said Lior Rennert, Clemson University Assistant Professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Public Health Sciences. “For the community, wastewater was very useful, because we could also look at associated trends in COVID-19 for populations that were not being subjected to our weekly testing program.”

Not only did the wastewater data serve as a valuable early warning tool and support program design, but also an effective education mechanism for the campus community to highlight the volume of asymptomatic cases and the risk to immunocompromised individuals. Dr. Freedman and other officials found that many students had a “young person’s view of the pandemic, which was, ‘So what if I get it? It’s just going to be a cold.’” Wastewater results made it easier to communicate the risks spreading the disease had to other people in the community.

Though the threat of COVID-19 is less dire, thanks to vaccinations and acquired immunity, wastewater testing offers a huge opportunity for containing it and other diseases on college campuses, where pathogens spread quickly. “Wastewater surveillance is a valuable tool when tracking public health issues in a college town,” Dr. Freedman says. 

Learn more about how Biobot works with higher education institutions and how we can build a custom solution that meets your needs here.