The State of Illinois announced Thursday, Sept. 29, it is launching a pilot program to analyze school wastewater for COVID-19.

The project, which will also test for influenza A and B, is an expansion of the Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System a partnership between the Illinois Department of Public Health and the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute. The project is assisted by Shield T3, a University of Illinois System spinoff.

“The 25-week pilot project will encompass up to 20 schools across Illinois covering thousands of K-12 students,” said the state public health department in a statement. “It will launch in the coming weeks and continue into the winter. …  Schools qualifying for participation will be located within community sewersheds currently participating in the [Wastewater Surveillance program]. Selected schools will include elementary, middle and high schools in urban, suburban and rural areas throughout the State.”

Samples will be collected from sewers or catch basins at each school twice a week while school is in session and then delivered to a University of Illinois Chicago testing laboratory.

The results will be compared with school saliva testing results to determine whether combined wastewater sampling and saliva testing could be a reliable, more cost-effective approach to detect and limit spread of the virus.

As an example, the state said, “If there are no signs of the coronavirus, schools could safely continue to operate with eased precautions. If virus levels rise to a tipping point, however, administrators could require students, teachers, and other staff members to take saliva tests to pinpoint the scope of the outbreak and take other public-health actions to keep more children from being infected.”

New COVID-19 cases in Evanston, Illinois

In Illinois, the seven-day average of new cases was 1,579 on Sept. 29, down from 2,522 on Sept. 22, a 37% decrease. [1]

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported by the City of Evanston jumped to 85 for the week ending Sept. 28, compared to 36 for the week ending Sept. 19, a 136% increase.

For Evanston, this article is comparing the seven days ending Sept. 28 to the seven days ending Sept. 19, because the city reported a huge jump of 92 cases for Sept. 20, and 207 cases for Sept. 21. Ike Ogbu, Director of Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department, told the RoundTable that the high number of cases reported for Sept. 20 and 21 was due to a lab reporting delay (excluding Northwestern University), with cases backlogged as far back as early August. As a result, the case counts for Sept. 20 and 21 “are not accurate representations of current cases and risk.”

Community risk rating

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Illinois’ health department look at a combination of three metrics to determine whether a community level of risk for COVID-19 is low, medium, or high. The graphic in footnote 2 below shows how these metrics are combined. [2]

To be rated in the low category, an area must: 1) have less than 200 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the last seven days; 2) have less than 10 new hospitalizations per 100,000 population due to COVID-19 in the last seven days; and 3) have less than 10% of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients (last seven-day average).  

On Sept. 29, the City of Evanston reported that it was in the low-risk category. The data reported for Evanston was:

  • New cases per 100,000 population: 109,
  • New hospital admissions due to COVID-19 per 100,000 population: 2.56,
  • Percent staffed inpatient beds in use by patients with COVID-19: 2.11%.

The City also provided the following information about the trend of hospitalizations at Evanston and St. Francis hospitals.

CDC reported this evening that Cook County remains in the low risk category. The data for Cook County was:

  • New cases per 100,000 population: 127,
  • New hospital admissions due to COVID-19 per 100,000 population: 8.7,
  • Percentage of staffed inpatient beds in use by patients with COVID-19: 3.5%.

CDC recommended steps

On Aug. 11, the CDC issued new steps people should take to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 and to reduce the spread. There are six steps that apply to all community risk levels, another two for people in medium and high community risk areas and two more for people in high community risk areas. The steps are:

At all COVID-19 community levels:

When the COVID-19 community level is medium or high:

  • If you are at high risk of getting very sick, wear a well-fitting mask or respirator when indoors in public.
  • If you have household or social contact with someone at high risk for getting very sick, consider testing to detect infection before contact and consider wearing a mask when indoors with them.

When the COVID-19 community level is high:

  • Wear a well-fitting mask or respirator.
  • If you are at high risk of getting very sick, consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed.

FOOTNOTES

1/ The number of new cases being publicly reported by the City of Evanston and the state are significantly lower than the actual number of new cases being contracted because many new cases are not being reported. The City of Evanston says that the state, Cook County and the city do not have a mechanism to report, verify or track at home test results. Because a positive at home test is regarded as highly accurate, most people who test positive in an at home test do not get a second test outside the home that is reported to government officials. The number of new COVID-19 cases reported by IDPH and the city thus significantly understates the actual number of new cases that are contracted. Some studies estimate the cases are underestimated by about 750% or more.

2/ CDC and IDPH use three indicators to measure COVID-19 community levels: 1) new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the last seven days; 2) new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 population in the last seven days; and 3) the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by patients with confirmed COVID-19 (seven-day average). 

 The chart below illustrates how these indicators are combined to determine whether COVID-19 community levels are low, medium, or high. The CDC provides many recommendations depending on whether the COVID-19 community level is low, medium, or high. If the risk indicators relating to hospitalizations differ, the higher risk indicator is used.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...

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