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Behind the scenes of wastewater testing to detect COVID-19 on campus of UNC Charlotte

UNC Charlotte launched the program in the summer of 2020.
UNC Charlotte launched the program in the summer of 2020.(N/A)
Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 5:32 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Early detection to slow the spread of COVID-19 is a goal on many college campuses.

UNC Charlotte has a multi-level approach to mitigating the virus that includes contact tracing, testing and self- symptom monitoring.

But researchers have also developed a wastewater testing program that detects the virus before someone may even know they have it and before they can spread it to others.

Field technicians collect wastewater samples from 37 sites across campus three days a week.

“You go up, you remove the battery, take out the collection sample, then spray it down and disinfect everything,” Mitchel Moudlin, an environmental field technician for UNC Charlotte, said.

Mouldin then drives the samples over to the on-campus laboratory.

Researchers, professors and students are there to begin the testing process.

They concentrate them, separating the solid from the liquid, and then extract the RNA to test for SARS-CoV-2.

“It’s an early warning system that provides an indicator of where we need to focus our time and effort to avoid further spread on campus,” Mariya Munir, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told WBTV.

Munir said the process can take up to eight or nine hours from the sample arriving in the lab to determining whether it’s positive or negative for the virus.

“We’re able to monitor the positivity rates by just testing the wastewater which is extremely effective,” UNC Charlotte senior Isaiah Young said. “We’re not having to stop everybody and test each and every student.”

As a student himself, Young sees the value in only having to test people in the residence hall where that positive sample came from.

In the past year, there have been several situations where the virus has been detected and everyone in the residence hall is told to stay there until they can be tested.

It’s time-consuming, but the researchers behind it say it’s worth the effort.

“This has been a very useful tool in trying to keep the campus safe from having Covid-19 spread to a larger population,” Munir said.

Some of the researchers at UNC Charlotte are also involved with a separate project rolled out by the state, testing wastewater across Mecklenburg County.

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