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Michigan Sewage Testing Shows Dropping COVID Levels

With emergency declarations repealed and mask and other mandates expired, the virus behind COVID-19 is still showing up in wastewater in Traverse City, Mich., albeit to a lessened degree.

(TNS) — With emergency declarations repealed and mask and other mandates expired, the virus behind COVID-19 is still showing up in Traverse City's wastewater.

But trends since the start of 2023 show it's definitely on the wane, said Maggie Petersen, project lead for SARS-CoV-2 Epidemiology Wastewater Evaluation and Reporting. She showed city commissioners how data collected by sampling sewage at 11 points around town showed a decline, to the point where three samples taken at the Traverse City Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant had no detectable amount of the virus in recent months.

"Seeing non-detections in that sample is especially encouraging, as we've seen periodic maybe one here, one there, but having three in the last couple of months I think is a solid indicator that we're seeing overall declining levels," she said.

Graphics Petersen showed commissioners found various other samples from around the city had no detectable levels of the virus, and those that did have declining amounts.

Those are the findings so far from a project funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant and coordinated by a statewide organization, the Michigan Network for Environmental Health and Technology, Petersen said. That organization works with 19 other labs around the state, bringing them together to determine the best methodology and how to disseminate the data as quickly as possible.

Results go to both the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC, Petersen said. The Great Lakes Environmental Center, where Petersen manages the molecular ecology lab, is working with the city and contractor Jacobs, which runs the wastewater treatment plant.

Samples at various points are taken once per week, while a sample of the inflow coming into the plant are taken twice per week, Petersen said. They're then concentrated and put through a process called droplet digital polymerase chain reaction to look for copies of specific genes present in the virus.

Not only did results track closely with local COVID case levels since testing began in July 2021, but scientists watched almost in real time as variants of the virus swept through the city, Petersen said. That aspect of the program started in April 2022, and the latest found are the XBB variants — the same ones which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just recommended the COVID booster be updated to protect against by fall 2023.

The relationship between sewage detections and confirmed cases essentially ceased in 2023, which Petersen said she attributes to at-home testing and some reporting no longer going to the state.

"We know we have good data coming in through wastewater even if we can't necessarily look at verified case counts," she said.

One perk of using sewage to look for the virus is that it can test a broad population anonymously instead of having everyone take a test, Petersen said.

Mick DeGraeve, project manager at Great Lakes Environmental Center, credited city and Jacobs employees for their cooperation, especially city Municipal Utilities Director Art Krueger for assisting in many ways.

"Without the kind of help that we got from Art in every way that works for him, we wouldn't be here," DeGraeve said.

While the testing program is funded through September, indications from the CDC and MDHHS are that additional funding is coming to continue it through summer 2024, Petersen said. What that'll look like remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, indicators that the pandemic is nothing like it was at its peak are everywhere. The federal public health emergency ended on May 11, and CDC stopped shipping free test kits on June 1 to preserve the remaining stock, according to its website. Nationwide, hospitalizations and deaths have been steadily declining since January.

But the virus that claimed 1,131,439 lives in the U.S. as of June 3 is still killing, with the CDC reporting 764 deaths nationwide in the week of May 13.

Search firm

Commissioners on Monday also agreed to ask three executive search firms to interview for the job of finding the next city manager.

They are Amy Cell Talent, GovHR USA and Walsh Municipal Services. Representatives of the three firms are set for a June 19 interview.

Mayor Richard Lewis recused himself from the vote to affirm a subcommittee's selection of the three, saying he had a relationship with one of the firms before that wasn't financial but he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest — he didn't specify which one, or what the relationship was.

Interim city Manager Nate Geinzer has a six-month contract with the city through September, as previously reported.

He's filling in after city commissioners in April ended the nearly eight-year tenure of city manager Marty Colburn.

© 2023 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.