MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Some breakthrough research is underway in St. Paul that lets us know how fast COVID-19 is spreading — and it uses data from your bathroom to check for the virus.

On June 28, water samples showed under two cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in the metro. That number steadily rose going to nearly 11 in just a few weeks.

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WCCO found out about the unusual way scientists quickly gathered this research.

Whether or not, they’ve ever been here, every person in the Twin Cities has a connection to a St. Paul Met Council plant. It’s the St. Paul plant where wastewater goes for 1.9 million people.

But as of late, it’s a place that has a new purpose, and lifelong scientist Steve Balogh has a new purpose, too.

“It is a bit surprising for me because I’ve never done this kind of work prior to the pandemic,” Balogh said.

For years, he was focused on testing wastewater for mercury. Now, he’s testing it for COVID-19.

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“Infected individuals will shed the virus into the toilet each day, and that gets flushed into the wastewater collection system and ends up at in a wastewater treatment plant,” he said.

(credit: CBS)

So he started gathering samples — an act of great precision. Just a small specimen yielded huge results. They detected COVID-19 with day-of research after genome researchers at the University of Minnesota stepped in to analyze samples. Ray Watson is a lead researcher.

“Although clinical tests are wonderful and are very accurate, the problem is that relies on someone wanting to get tested. The nice thing about wastewater is it captures that entire population because everyone is using the wastewater system,” Watson said. “And we can then use that as a measure of how the virus is surging, and get a good idea of what we’re looking at in terms of the viral levels in a community.”

The latest data shows the Delta variant is what’s surging. It’s rapid daily data scientists are now giving to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“We didn’t really know anything about this, but we had to learn and we learned quickly,” Balogh said. “And now to actually have something that is useful is really, really gratifying for us.”

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The data doesn’t show where COVID-19 is coming from, just the overall population contamination. Similar research is being done at MIT and in Australia.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield