By Shawn Hutchins
Special to Rice News
Schools are among the most notable settings people associate with picking up viral infections such as the common cold, various types of the flu or other respiratory viruses.
A new study by Rice University and the Houston Health Department shows wastewater-based monitoring is an effective way to detect viral outbreaks in schools.
After two difficult COVID-19 winters, a major concern for parents, school districts and medical professionals has been a “tripledemic” — a simultaneous surge in cases of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV.
“School-age children are in close contact with one another daily for long periods,” said Rice environmental engineer Lauren Stadler. “Further transmission of viral infections is also likely due to underreporting of symptoms or from children who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.”
Stadler, the principal investigator on the study, and her lab are part of a collaborative effort to establish a citywide wastewater monitoring system for the protection of public health, along with Rice statistician and community analytics expert Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer at the Houston Health Department. Hopkins is also a professor in the practice of statistics at Rice.
The laboratory and data analysis from a 17-month study that tracked SARS-CoV-2 and influenza A and B in wastewater from Houston Independent School District (HISD) campuses demonstrated that viral loads were reflective of school, community and citywide infections. The findings also suggest that wastewater-based epidemiology of schools could be more broadly implemented to reduce the burden of disease on communities and the number of school days missed due to illness.
The results from the study are published in Water Research.
“Although wastewater monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 has been studied extensively, there have been a limited number of studies to date on wastewater monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 in pre-K-12 school settings, nor many studies that have expanded school monitoring to include other respiratory viruses, such as influenza,” Stadler said.
The HISD schools participating in the study — 39 elementary and early-childhood centers, five middle schools, five high schools and two combined-grade-level schools — were selected based on ZIP code as well as COVID-19 positivity and vulnerability rates.
School wastewater monitoring operates much like at a municipal wastewater treatment plant. Weekly composite samples are collected by Houston Public Works from manholes that capture wastewater generated at the schools over a six-hour timeframe during school hours.
Stadler’s Rice lab analyzes the wastewater samples for influenza and SARS-CoV-2 genomic fragments, and the Houston Health Department’s lab analyzes for SARS-CoV-2.
Weekly reports are communicated back to the schools and city and public health officials to enable strategies to stop the onset of potential outbreaks. School SARS-CoV-2 and influenza trend information is also available to the public through the City of Houston Wastewater Monitoring Dashboard and is linked on HISD’s Health Alerts website.
“We have developed a unique partnership with HISD through this project and will continue to work with school and district leadership to quickly identify emerging outbreaks and hotspots and provide interventions and resources,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins, an expert in environmental science and engineering, contributed to a consensus study report released last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that looked at the value of wastewater surveillance as a tool to trace, prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases beyond COVID-19.
The team of Rice-Houston Health Department collaborators operates as Houston Wastewater Epidemiology, which has gained a reputation as a leader in the field and is designated as a National Wastewater Surveillance System Center of Excellence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Major contributors to the analysis and writing of the study from Stadler’s lab were research technician Madeline Wolken, postdoctoral fellow Camille McCall and Prashant Kalvapalle, a doctoral student in systems, synthetic and physical biology.
Ensor’s statistical analysis and reporting team, which includes contributing author and doctoral student Thomas Sun, collaborates with analysts Rebecca Schneider, Kelsey Caton, Courtney Hundley and Kaavya Domakonda of the Houston Health Department’s Data Science Division, which is managed by Hopkins.
Additional co-authors on the study include Stephen Williams, director of the Houston Health Department, and Dr. David Persse, the public health authority for the City of Houston, who is responsible for the medical aspects of clinical care quality management, disease control and public health preparedness.
- Peer-reviewed paper:
Wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza in preK-12 schools shows school community, and citywide infections | Water Research | DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2023.119648
Authors: Madeline Wolken, Thomas Sun, Camille McCall, Rebecca Schneider, Kelsey Caton, Courtney Hundley, Loren Hopkins, Katherine Ensor, Kaavya Domakonda, Prashant Kalvapalle, David Persse, Stephen Williams and Lauren Stadler
- Image downloads:
CAPTION: Lauren Stadler is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a research faculty member in the Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) at Rice University. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
CAPTION: Loren Hopkins is a professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University and chief environmental science officer and bureau chief with the Houston Health Department Data Science Division. (Photo courtesy of Loren Hopkins/Rice University)
CAPTION: Katherine Ensor is the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics and director of the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems at Rice University. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 4,552 undergraduates and 3,998 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.