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A bathroom in Kings Court English College House.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn will start monitoring wastewater in the College House system to detect and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The University’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety department began wastewater-based monitoring efforts as of Sept. 20 and will continue throughout the fall semester, according to an email sent to all College House residents on Sept. 19 by Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé. Wastewater monitoring can detect the virus two-to-three days prior to symptoms because of viral particles that are shed, and can identify both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, Dubé wrote. 

Though wastewater testing results “cannot be tied to an individual or a particular room or location within the College House,” Dubé wrote that the program may send a targeted request for further testing to residents if a positive signal is found.

“We don’t anticipate this changing anything for students. It’s just another data monitoring system," Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said. 

A sampling device in wastewater pipes will “continuously collect small volumes of wastewater,” which will be collected and transported twice a week to EurofinsQC, a third-party laboratory, according to an FAQ attached to Dubé's email. The laboratory analysis data will then be sent to the University Faculty Senate Committee focused on Planning for Post-Pandemic Penn.

The wastewater monitoring program will correlate with PennOpen Pass symptom reports and test positivity rates, according to the email.

Wastewater testing for COVID-19 has already been implemented by some state and local governments, as well as other colleges and universities. In October 2020, more than 65 colleges and universities had implemented wastewater testing programs, according to NPR. The University of Arizona was able to prevent an outbreak of the virus with the help of wastewater testing in August 2020. 

Dubé wrote that the program is intended to complement the existing requirement that students get tested for COVID-19 twice monthly, as well as other mitigation measures, like Penn's vaccination mandate, indoor mask mandate, and contact tracing efforts. 

“Wastewater testing is not a substitute for any of the other mitigation strategies. It is just part of our monitoring system," Chief Operating Officer for Wellness Services Erika Gross said. 

After a brief uptick in cases, the COVID-19 positivity rate on campus decreased to 0.38% for the week of Sept. 12 through Sept. 18. The University also announced on Sept. 14 that no instances of classroom transmission have been detected, and at least 97% of students and faculty have been vaccinated. 

“As we navigate this pandemic as a community, we must now learn to coexist with COVID[-19]. We must continue to remain vigilant and follow public health guidance in order to minimize any risk of transmission,” Dubé wrote in the email. “We all benefit when we all do our part.”