University of Tennessee COVID-19 wastewater, saliva sampling testing underway

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)– The University of Tennessee started collecting two types of bodily fluids in hopes to catch a potential COVID-19 outbreak before it starts.

Dr. Terry Hazen, Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology, said the first sample they collect is wastewater.

Every day engineers head out to at least 10 buildings to check the wastewater. They do so by first wearing a hazmat suit. Then they open a manhole and reach in with a long tool to collect the water.

After collecting the sample and putting it into a container, they take have to spray the container with 75% ethanol solution to decontaminate the outside. The sample heads to the Science and Engineering Research Facility on campus for testing.

“We can see 1,000; 10,000; 100,000 (virus particles) at a time. And we don’t get really worried until it gets up to way over 100,000, potentially 1 million virus particles per liter,” Hazen said.

Hazen said he hasn’t necessarily seen that amount yet, even at the known quarantine buildings.

He said that could be because there aren’t as many students in the quarantine buildings, so it would be a smaller amount of people to grab the samples from.

Hazen said the surveillance of wastewater simply tells them if COVID-19 is prevalent in certain buildings around campus. It’s an economical way to test large groups for the virus.

“We can do the surveillance testing for actual less than a dollar a sample,” Hazen said. He said individual testing costs about $100 per sample.

The surveillance testing also cuts down time and is more safe, because less technicians are being exposed. The results only take about four or five hours.

Hazen said once lab techs determine a significant presence of COVID-19 via wastewater samples, then students in those buildings will be asked to provide saliva samples for the second type of testing.

Dr. Frank Loeffler, Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the saliva samples show an even clearer picture of how prevalent the virus is. Students needing to provide a saliva sample will receive a letter with instructions and a test tube for their spit.

“We specifically instruct them to do this immediately after waking up. So we do not want them to eat, drink, brush their teeth or do anything else,” Loeffler said.

Loeffler said samples are picked up by noon, then taken to the SERF building for testing.

“We take five tubes and pool them into one sample. That is the ideal pooled testing so we can process a lot more samples,” Loeffler said.

He said the testing take about five to six hours. Loeffler said that they tested the process last week, but about half of the students provided samples. He said he thought that might be because students might be worried about anonymity.

“We will not generate information about individual students–you are positive, you are negative. We just generate a general picture about the prevalence of the virus in a certain building, maybe on a certain floor within a building,” Loeffler said.

If the saliva samples show a significant amount of virus particles, then Loeffler will send the report to university health officials so they can request students to take the COVID-19 rapid test.

“The key thing here is to generate the best possible data that will help us to make the right decisions,” Loeffler said.

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