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Boise seeks crucial COVID-19 data through wastewater testing

The data could help show communities information like how to anticipate the impacts of COVID-19 or show warning signs of future outbreaks.

BOISE, Idaho — The City of Boise is partnering with a wastewater epidemiology company in the hopes of flushing out the COVID-19 virus - literally. 

Biobot specializes in analyzing wastewater for public health purposes. 

According to its website, the company is doing sewage testing because the strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 can be found in feces.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also attests that evidence of the virus can be found in the feces of some patients. However, the CDC adds it is still unsure whether the virus can be fecally-transmitted. 

The goal of the wastewater testing is to help provide data, such as geographical information, of the COVID-19 virus in communities. 

“They’re specifically testing for a part of the virus and I think what’s most interesting is the potential to understand breadth of where the virus has spread, specifically in asymptomatic carriers," said Haley Falconer, Boise's environmental manager.

The city will be taking weekly wastewater samples before it goes through the water renewal system. The samples will be taken from its two main wastewater facilities, which encompass Boise, Garden City, Eagle, and a few other areas. 

Samples will also be taken directly from the underground pipelines at five other locations throughout Boise. 

“Is there one area that we’re seeing different information or different results than another area and does that tell us something that we didn’t know?” Falconer said. 

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All samples will be sent to Biobot for analysis. According to the company, data from wastewater testing can help measure the scope of an outbreak in certain areas, help to better anticipate the virus' impact, help government and health officials make informed decisions about the virus, and ideally, even help warn of future outbreaks.

"We don’t know how important it’s going to be," Falconer said. "It could be one minor piece of information in this broader swath or it could be something that becomes more important in this. But I think our ability to pivot and to be innovative is really important in times like these and we’re glad to be a part of that."

Falconer said the city has already been doing testing for a couple of weeks. The first wave of results should be back at the end of this week or early next week. The city plans to continue testing through at least August. At the end of May, city leaders will evaluate the results and effectiveness of testing, which will determine how often they do it. 

It costs $120 per sample and the money is coming out of the city's water renewal fund. 

“This is a new and proactive way to provide our experts and decision-makers critical data to get a fuller picture of COVID-19 in our community," said Boise Public Works Director Steve Burgos. "We jumped at the opportunity to help our community in any way possible."

Idaho is one of 42 states currently working with Biobot to collect wastewater samples for COVID-19 research purposes.

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