There’s a new way health officials can detect COVID-19 infections, and it starts in Puyallup residents’ homes — more specifically, their bathrooms.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recently announced its partnership with the state Department of Health as well as local wastewater facilities to test for COVID in untreated wastewater. The state Department of Health is funding the program, TPCHD spokesperson Kenny Via said via email.

Doing this may help the health department identify when COVID infections increase or decrease, according to an announcement from the TPCHD. Test sampling began at the Puyallup Water Pollution Control Plant this week.

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“Puyallup is the first facility to join the program in Pierce County,” Via wrote. “We’re working to add another facility soon.”

The state DOH will partner with the Puyallup plant as well as other local water treatment facilities to collect wastewater samples twice a week. Turnaround time is swift and results will be entered into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Wastewater Surveillance System.

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It takes two weeks’ worth of data before health officials can begin seeing trends. First results are expected in early June, which residents can track on the CDC’s wastewater data tracker page.

Via wrote that the program is funded through 2023, and that the state DOH has requested funding to continue the program after that.

“Many of you have taken COVID-19 tests at home … But not everyone reports test results. This leads to an undercount of cases,” TPCHD’s COVID Project Manager Jennifer Thompson wrote in the announcement.

As COVID cases continue to rise, wastewater testing can help warn and allow health officials to prepare for surges, Thompson wrote. Health officials might not know the “true size” of case surges until hospitals begin to show that they are struggling with patients.

Although wastewater testing provides another tool in health officials’ toolbox, there are limitations. Data collected does not specify race, ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status. Weather can also dilute samples.

“Even with these limitations, data from wastewater testing combined with other COVID-19 data give us, local healthcare facilities and you valuable information,” Thompson wrote.

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Those who test positive for COVID with an at-home test are advised to start isolation, take care of themselves and notify close contacts from at least two days before the test or when symptoms arise.

They should then notify their health care provider and call the state COVID hotline at 800-525-0127. More information about at-home tests from the TPCHD can be found online at bit.ly/3wOlZ2p.

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