If our toilets are any sign of this, there could be a sharp spike in coronavirus cases in San Diego County soon.
UC San Diego officials this weekend warned that samples from the Point Loma wastewater treatment facility, which processes the rinsed waste from two out of three area residents, were showing the highest levels of coronavirus the university has seen since February. Both the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus are fueling the surge, they said.
Researchers have consistently found that when the virus concentration in sewage increases, cases typically increase within a few weeks, which puts the region on track for an increase in early 2022. This is again causing scientists and public health officials to vaccinate the unvaccinated, the vaccinated to return for boosters, and everyone should think well before attending large and unmasked indoor gatherings.
“There will be an unprecedented surge in COVID cases in San Diego. It’s already on the move, ”said Rob Knight, a microbiome expert and a director of wastewater monitoring at UCSD. “There is still a chance to keep this in the sewer and out of the hospitals and out of the morgue.”
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The announcement was the culmination of a brief, intense tussle at the university. At around 4:30 p.m. on December 17, Knight received a text message from a member of his team reporting the sharp rise in the coronavirus. The university’s COVID-19 monitoring team then tried to understand the data.
Your main question: Did Omicron drive the upward trend? It would have taken at least a week to find an answer using genetic sequencing. Instead, the researchers worked late into the night and the next morning to run a molecular test specifically designed to differentiate between variants. This test found that both the Delta and Omicron variants contributed to the increase.
“It’s like having two pandemics at the same time with different strains of the virus,” Knight said.
Wastewater tests work because, while COVID-19 is best known for attacking the respiratory tract, the virus that causes it also slips into the cells that line the intestines and can be excreted through a person’s stool before excreting itself feels sick.
Local data from last year shows that an increase in virus concentration in wastewater suggests infections found with standard nasal and throat swabs.
The UCSD announcement included a statement from Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county health officer, said the new results confirm the increasing evidence of Omicron’s spread.
And Dr. Christopher Longhurst, UCSD Health’s chief medical officer, pleaded with the public to get tested for the virus “when you experience the slightest symptoms, when you think you’ve had contact with someone with COVID-19, when you don’t have a mask gathered en masse. … Don’t wait. ”◆