Wastewater collection data could help track COVID-19 spread in Tampa

A thousand milliliters of sewage carries billions of microbes of human waste. In that waste is proof of COVID-19.

"They have found it is an earlier indicator because it will be in the wastewater and come to this plant before people actually show signs of COVID," said Eric Weiss, the director of the City of Tampa wastewater plant.

The city sends samples to a Massachusetts company called Biobot, which is collecting from three stations in Hillsborough County and 700 nationwide. Even though numbers in Florida are still relatively low, the data shows we are enduring a small wave in Hillsborough and nationwide.

"When you are seeing a lot of people testing at home, not testing, possibly being asymptomatic – we are able to capture everybody who is infected," said Jennings Heussner, a spokesperson for Biobot.

When it comes to the height of the omicron wave, there is a noticeable difference in what clinical tests showed versus Biobot's collection stations.

"The Omicron wave brought a lot of new asymptomatic cases because we had a lot of people who were already vaccinated," said Heussner. "While those people might not have known they were sick, we were able to capture the true viral load within the community."

The other value in wastewater collection is that it is clear which variants are circulating. In Hillsborough, the dominant variant is still omicron, which is in about 60% of the samples, versus stealth omicron, which is in 40%.

"When you are looking at the full picture, you can make better decisions for your community's public health," said Heussner.

The City of Tampa said there is no cost for participating in the studies.