PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Health officials detected Oregon’s first omicron-variant COVID-19 cases Monday and they expect the wastewater surveillance program will soon see it spreading through communities. 

Scientists are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 through wastewater systems in 40 communities throughout Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority says these communities include about 60% of the state’s population. 

The wastewater testing program launched in Oregon in September 2020 and has previously detected the emergence of other variants, like the delta variant. 

Now, with omicron present in the state, scientists expect they’ll see an increase of it in their wastewater samples. 

“I think situations like this where we have a new variant emerging is really where wastewater can shine, because we tend to see the signal and wastewater before it shows up in clinical cases,” said Blythe Layton, the research program manager at Clean Water Services. 

Clean Water Services has been monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 in Washington County. 

Layton said they collect samples from treatment plants and manholes in neighborhoods. Last week, Clean Water Services and other scientists around the state, including those at Oregon State University, began testing their samples for the omicron variant. 

COVID-19 Wastewater testing
Researchers collect a wastewater sample from a manhole. Photo courtesy Clean Water Services.

With the help of CARES Act funding, Clean Water Services built a new lab in late 2020 to run their own wastewater samples. Before that, they were sending their samples to Oregon State University. 

Now, they can determine on their own if COVID-19 is present in a water sample, but they’re still sending the RNA they collect from samples to OSU for sequencing on a weekly basis. 

“We do report our data to Washington County Health and Human Services on a weekly basis and we also report our data to OHA on a weekly basis, and I know that they’re tracking this very closely,” Layton said. 

As of Dec. 8, Oregon state health officials said samples of wastewater had been tested through Nov. 23 and were all found negative for the omicron variant. More recent samples are undergoing testing now, they said. 

Test results are posted on the Oregon Health Authority’s SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Monitoring dashboard. The dashboard features a map showing which communities are having their wastewater tested and where COVID-19 prevalence is increasing or decreasing. 

While there’s no information yet on the omicron variant’s prevalence in wastewater, Layton said there are signs COVID-19 prevalence in general is increasing. That’s something researchers tend to see around the holidays. 

“We are starting to see a little bit of an increase in the wastewater, so I would expect in the coming weeks to see a corresponding increase in cases, based on what we’ve seen during past surges,” Layton said. 

She said Clean Water Services partnered with Oregon Health & Science University last winter to compare nasal swab testing to wastewater testing in East Portland to see how the data from both tests lined up. Layton said she hasn’t seen the paper yet, which will include the data, but from what she knows, the data shows a shockingly tight correlation. 

She also said testing wastewater is a more unbiased indicator of COVID-19 prevalence in a community. Swab testing depends on a person volunteering to get tested, but sewage testing samples everyone who has access to the sewer system. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, Layton said the Clean Water Services laboratory will be used to study other pathogens in wastewater. She said there’s interest in studying the flu and cryptosporidium. She said the droplet digital PCR test can be used to look at the biological treatment process in wastewater treatment plants and to look at biological phosphorus removal. 

“There’s all kinds of applications of this technology and we’re really excited to be deploying it in all these different arenas,” Layton said.