RICHMOND — For the last year, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) has used an innovative practice as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic: studying wastewater samples at 40 of its facilities.
VADOC facilities offer unique benefits for tracking because they provide small, controlled, relatively unchanging populations that demonstrate trends quickly and clearly.
“Wastewater testing offers an extremely reliable snapshot of the health of a facility in regards to COVID. If someone has COVID-19, wastewater testing tells us right away,” said Meghan Mayfield, VADOC’s Energy and Environmental Administrator.
Under ordinary circumstances, patients may not show COVID-19 symptoms for eight to 10 days after exposure. Regular wastewater testing gives health officials a potential head start in dealing with an outbreak, greatly improving their ability to monitor infection rates in the facility.
“The program is designed to detect COVID as early as possible to eliminate spread and suffering among inmates, staff, and the public,” according to Robert Tolbert, VADOC’s Utilities Plant Administrator.
The Department was among the first state prison systems to perform wastewater testing. It began testing last October, working with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) to perform and monitor Virginia’s prison facilities weekly.
“We are always willing to work with our community partners in efforts to keep all in our community, and our world, safe,” said Harold Clarke, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections. “This is in keeping with our public safety mission to help people be better.”
Wastewater testing is also significantly more cost-effective than many other forms of testing. Before its implementation, health officials relied on point prevalence testing, an expensive, labor-intensive effort involving nasal swabs that can cost as much as $180,000 for a one-time test of all inmates and staff at an average-size facility. By comparison, wastewater testing for a similar facility costs around $200.
“We’ve eliminated scheduled point prevalence testing at VADOC. Wastewater testing is a much less expensive, extremely accurate predictor,” Mayfield said. “We can use this data as a preliminary indicator of the presence of COVID-19 inside a facility. By considering other factors, such as community spread and existing COVID infections at the facility, we can use these results to make better decisions about proceeding with targeted point prevalence testing at any facility.”
The wastewater process was developed following the onset of the pandemic and can potentially be used to track other viruses in the future.
VADOC’s approach has worked so well, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have asked VADOC to assist with validating the results of a new biological diagnostic testing solution. This solution, developed by LuminUltra Technologies, is being tested at five state prison facilities across the Commonwealth and will help other state correctional agencies and smaller rural communities monitor wastewater for COVID-19.