Traverse City News and Events

Results In For City Wastewater Testing For Coronavirus; More Pandemic Updates

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 8, 2021

Nine weeks of testing Traverse City’s wastewater at eight different locations found that nearly three-quarters of samples contained traces of coronavirus – part of a statewide pilot program to research COVID-19 monitoring that could also help Traverse City track E. coli and other contaminants in the future. The Ticker has more details on those and other coronavirus-related updates this week, including the expansion of vaccine distribution in Michigan and the district-wide return to in-person learning at Traverse City Area Public Schools.

Wastewater Testing
A $10 million statewide pilot program to test wastewater in Michigan communities, on university campuses, and at other institutions from October to December with the goal of monitoring and reducing COVID-19 spread included eight locations sampled weekly in Traverse City – with nearly three-quarters of those samples coming back showing some level of SARS-CoV2.

Traverse City received $173,000 in grant funding to participate in the program that included over 270 testing sites throughout the state, including sewers and wastewater treatment plants. According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), coronavirus is shed in human feces – including from people who are infected but not yet showing symptoms – and can be detected in wastewater up to a week before a correlating increase is seen in clinical cases. State officials hope to better study how wastewater testing can be used as an early surveillance system, alerting officials to potential impending outbreaks.

A total of 72 samples were taken from eight different locations throughout Traverse City in over two months, according to Environmental Health Director Dan Thorell of the Grand Traverse County Health Department. Out of those 72 samples, 52 – or 72 percent – tested positive for some level of coronavirus. Because the sampling sites represent large population swaths in Traverse City – such as from a transmission main pumping in wastewater from the entire east or west side of the city – “it is difficult to draw specific conclusions from any individual sampling sites,” Thorell notes. He adds that test results confirmed what officials already knew: that “covid is here in the community.”

But the pilot project presents opportunities beyond simply confirming the widespread prevalence of coronavirus in the region, Thorell says. For one, data across the state will be compiled and used in academic research including “robust statistical analysis” that can compare sample results with correlating community caseload data, potentially identifying “threshold values” or early warning signs of looming outbreaks, according to Thorell. “Where this would be really useful is in situations where you could look at wastewater on a much smaller scale, such as from nursing homes, jails, or college dorms to determine if SARS-CoV2 is present to prevent a large outbreak,” Thorell says. An institution like Northwestern Michigan College, for example, could pay to monitor its dorm wastewater when students are living on campus in the hopes early detection of a positive sample could trigger rapid testing and avoid widescale spread (several colleges across the country are already implementing such testing programs).

The pilot project offers another benefit for Traverse City: lab equipment that could help track other contaminants. As part of the project funding, the city received $70,000 worth of lab equipment it can keep after the wastewater experiment is complete, provided the city has a continued use for it. Thorell says one practical application could be “source tracking” E. coli in the event of beach outbreaks. Rather than simply identifying the presence of E. coli, as occurs now, testing could determine whether the bacteria specifically originated from human or non-human sources. High levels caused by animals – such as when wildlife is living in sewers or pet or bird waste washes into pipes – often can’t be avoided, but human-caused E. coli could point to correctable septic or sewer failures somewhere in the system. “If we get high E. coli levels right now, we don’t know where it’s from,” Thorell says.

Vaccine Distribution
In other coronavirus-related news, state leaders announced this week they are expanding eligibility for Michigan residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As of January 11, counties statewide are permitted to begin vaccinating residents in the Phase 1B prioritization category – a list that includes anyone over 65 and some categories of essential workers, including police officers, first responders, jail and prison staff, frontline state and federal workers, and preK-12 teachers and childcare providers.

Over 152,000 total vaccines have been administered in Michigan as of Tuesday, according to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who announced at a press conference this week that the state has set a goal of administering 90 percent of vaccines within seven days of receiving them from the federal government. While health departments may start vaccinating residents in the Phase 1B group, Whitmer emphasized that many communities are still focusing on Phase 1A – healthcare and long-term care workers – and that not enough vaccines are available yet across the state for everyone in both tiers to be vaccinated immediately. Vaccines are available only by appointment, with Whitmer encouraging residents to check the state website for upcoming availability.

In light of the news, Grand Traverse County issued a press release Thursday advising that its health department is still continuing to focus on Phase 1A vaccinations for the next few weeks before beginning the 1B group, and that sign-up details for 1B individuals will likely be available by next week. Residents are asked not to contact the health department in the meantime until the scheduling announcement is made.

TCAPS Returns To Face-To-Face Learning
Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) returned to face-to-face learning for all grades across the district Tuesday following the holiday break – though staff shortages continue to pose challenges and officials are monitoring caseloads for potential adjustments as needed going forward.

TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner says the return to in-person instruction this week has been “going pretty well,” though he acknowledges the district is “continuing to have a few issues with having enough staff.” The shortage has notably affected busing, with parents warned about delays up to 45 minutes and some middle and high school students needing to wait under supervision after school while a reduced number of buses take a first round of students home, return to school, and pick up a second round of students to take home. VanWagoner says TCAPS is working hard to hire more staff; the district has already successfully recruited more substitute teachers, and is holding hiring fairs on January 14 and 18 to fill a variety of open positions across the district.

TCAPS is also monitoring caseloads for any needed potential adjustments to learning formats. Positive coronavirus cases have been identified this week connected to West Middle School, Westwoods Elementary School, Long Lake Elementary School, Central Grade School, and Central High School, according to the district. TCAPS and health department officials are continuing to follow protocols of notifying affected families or staff who may need to quarantine or take other action while schools continue to hold face-to-face classes. “We have to monitor (the situation) day by day,” says VanWagoner. “We are doing everything we can to just keep going.”

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