Water-Related News

Pinellas County Utilities tracking COVID-19 in wastewater

Researchers are using wastewater epidemiology in hopes of knowing the community prevalence of coronavirus ahead of test results.

PINELLAS COUNTY — It’s a new way to potentially track COVID-19 before you even know you’re sick: testing raw sewage.

Pinellas County is the first in Tampa Bay to begin collecting samples for analysis and the utilities department hopes tracing the virus through untreated wastewater could be the "canary in the coal mine."

The South Cross Bayou Treatment plant in Pinellas County is a 24/7 operation. Located just north of the city of St. Petersburg, it’s one of two treatment plants for the county.

Each day 35 million gallons of raw wastewater are treated to remove everything from pollution to pathogens such as the common cold, E. Coli and viruses like COVID.

“The canary in the coal mine. With wastewater treatment, we can detect potentially levels of the virus and detect its presence in the community possibly even before individuals know they have the virus,” Megan Ross said.

Ross is the director of Pinellas County Utilities. She and the other women behind the scenes of wastewater treatment for Pinellas County spoke with 10 Investigates’ Courtney Robinson.

In June, they embarked on a new COVID-19 research project involving wastewater analytics and epidemiology.

“What we’re flushing down the toilet comes from us. It comes from our bodies, so I still think there’s a lot we can learn and that’s why we do the testing,” said Hillary Weber, assistant director of Pinellas County Utilities.