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'Solving the COVID puzzle:' Gallatin County health officials look to wastewater for answers

Posted at 7:55 AM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-11 09:55:18-04

As cases emerge again across the state -- scientists continue to test wastewater for new ways to detect the virus.

In fact, that’s what Gallatin County health officials say is helping find these new cases.

Topics of wastewater and sewage might not be topics that we generally talk about around the dinner table but for the Gallatin City-County Health Department (GCCHD), it could still mean all the difference with these cases of COVID-19 popping up beneath our feet.

“It’s kind of like putting a puzzle together and this is one piece of that puzzle,” says Matt Kelley, GCCHD health officer.

In most circumstances, what lies at the end of the gutter might not seem like the place to look for protecting community health.

Kelley says that’s what MSU scientists are still doing and with new cases appearing, the project won’t stop.

“We’ve had 14 or 15 cases in the past week and a half and that would be consistent with what we are seeing in the wastewater now,” Kelley says.

A warning beacon, kind of like a tip-up flag to an ice fisherman.

Only here, Kelley says it could help detect COVID-19 where it doesn’t seem to appear.

“It can be an early warning system to help us detect the virus where we might not be seeing it in the traditional testing of individuals where somebody is getting a swab stuck up their nose and a specimen collected and that’s being sent into a lab,” Kelley says. “Everybody uses the bathroom during the day and so it is a way to consolidate specimens and be able to gather those specimens and run those through.”

Kelley says the labs at MSU helped find the most recent cases and not just in Bozeman.

“June 3, we took a sample and we saw some viral load detected in Bozeman,” Kelley says. “We’ve also gotten some detects in West Yellowstone.”

So far, West Yellowstone and Big Sky are within the testing magnifying glass, with Three Forks to go online soon and Belgrade potentially to follow.

“It could be a cue for us to look harder, to look in different places,” Kelley says.

Kelley adds what scientists are seeing in wastewater evidence is matching up with what’s being found within medical evidence.

“You think about really getting a good view of what’s happening in the community. It could be a piece of the puzzle,” Kelley says.

The health officer says just because scientists might not be seeing any of the virus in wastewater at a given point in time doesn’t mean the community doesn’t have any cases.

He adds that just means the threshold may have dropped to a level where they can’t detect it.