Messages from the Council Chair

Met Council has the poop on COVID-19

March 2022

Chair Charlie ZelleFinding a needle in a haystack is child’s play compared to the work that is being done at the Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant. Out of the 176 million gallons of wastewater coming from nearly 2 million people in 66 communities every day, our scientists can capture and measure about 10 viral RNA molecules that can tell public health officials how COVID-19 is impacting our region.

The principle is simple. Many people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed the remains of the virus in their feces. When that waste ends up at a wastewater treatment plant, the viral material can be detected and measured.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Met Council Environmental Services staff saw that other plants around the world were developing reliable testing procedures. They studied those efforts and started a research partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Genomics Center. After months of work, they came up with a reliable analytical procedure.

Data shows up in wastewater before community testing is reported

The data being collected through our partnership with the university is clarifying the way we view the COVID-19 pandemic. The viral load present in wastewater has been closely matching the case data being gathered through clinical testing. The added advantage is that the wastewater data are available up to several days before clinical testing results are reported. So, our partners at the Minnesota Department of Health can get an early warning that the trend may be changing.

In addition to sharing with MDH, we make our data available to the public on our website.

Had this process been in place in early 2020, we would have had much more information about when COVID began spreading in Minnesota. The results are fast, accurate, and anonymous, giving public health officials an important new data point for monitoring the growth of a viral outbreak.

I am extremely proud of the work our Environmental Services Division staff are doing in partnership with the U of M. It is a prime example of how regional partnerships can serve the people of the Twin Cities. The basic technology can be adapted to monitor many other viruses, pathogens, or variants of concern and provide public health officials with actionable information. It’s a new tool to keep our region safer and healthier.