YSU Detects COVID-19 On Campus Even Faster through Sewage

Biology professor Chet Cooper collects a sewage sample from Lyden House early Tuesday morning. Photos by Abigail Cloutier/The Jambar

By Abigail Cloutier

In the last two weeks, black barrels surrounded by traffic cones popped up near Youngstown State University’s residence halls. They’re the result of an initiative through the Ohio Department of Health to detect COVID-19 earlier through wastewater testing. 

According to biology professor Chet Cooper, who handles the testing, it’ll allow YSU to target specific on-campus populations for surveillance testing and to stay ahead of the curve.

“When you’re doing the nasal swab, you’re looking at the actual moment where you suspect they may already be showing symptoms. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that people who are infected with the coronavirus, part of that infection also establishes itself in the intestinal tract,” he said. 

This makes the viral RNA detectable in our wastewater even sooner than a rapid test or traditional test.

“People who are infected begin to shed the virus about two days before they actually start showing symptoms. If you know a couple days ahead of time, then that’s two more days that you have to implement any policy or practice to mitigate further infection,” Cooper said. 

Every Tuesday and Friday, Cooper rides around campus to collect the wastewater samples from the automatic sampling machines for Lyden, Kilcawley and Cafaro houses, as well as the two Courtyard apartment buildings. John Hyden, associate vice president of facilities on campus, helped facilitate the project and set up the machines around campus.

“The president’s office was approached by the Inter-University Council, who was approached by the Ohio Department of Health regarding this program that they were trying to put in place to test,” he said. 

The ODH provided the automatic samplers and funding for Cooper and three undergraduate assistants to conduct the testing. 

“It gives some of our students an opportunity to earn a little bit of money and to gain some really valuable experience — real life experience. This is not the sort of thing that’s ever been done around here. While it might not be a glamorous job, it’s real life,” Hyden said.

The students, who all studied under Cooper in his microbiology course, help collect and package samples, which are then shipped to a lab in Texas for data processing.

“We felt that we didn’t have the time or resources available immediately, because it was going to take a while to set up that kind of system, and we needed to get this operational as soon as possible,” Cooper said. 

The lab processes the samples and sends the data back to Cooper electronically within a few days. Then, Cooper and his research assistants analyze the findings. Brooke Brocker, a sophomore biology major, is one of the assistants on the project.

“I think this is really interesting to be in a lab and do more in-depth experiments than just the normal lab for normal classes,” she said. 

After analysis, they provide the results to the Office of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, which will decide how to target residents for surveillance testing and if they need to enact additional COVID-19 policies. Cooper encourages the campus not to speculate about testing and results.

“This is just an evaluation. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything in general,” he said. “But what’s really exciting about this is that it’s a real time application of a potentially serious situation. This is one thing we can do as a university to benefit the welfare of our students on campus.”