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How sewage is helping Whatcom County scientists detect coronavirus

Scientists are preventing outbreaks by examining sewage, saying traces of coronavirus can be found in sewage a week before someone starts showing symptoms.

FERNDALE, Wash. — In the battle against coronavirus, scientists in Whatcom County are looking at what's coming out of your toilet.

Typically, scientists at Exact Scientific Services look for contaminants in the food you put in your mouth, but these days, they're examining what comes out the other end.

"We just started naturally thinking about what we could do for our own community, our own families," said molecular biologist Casey Schlenker.

In a shipping container converted into a COVID-19 testing lab, Schlenker and his team have been examining wastewater in Whatcom County for signs of COVID-19.

They had no trouble finding it.

In fact, they were detecting it before people even started showing symptoms.

"The point of this testing is to give the community that early information and allow the community to respond," said Schlenker. "The consensus in the scientific literature tells us we can detect it about a week before symptoms present."

Case in point: Lynden Christian High School.

Scientists recently found evidence of COVID in the wastewater there, most likely from an asymptomatic spreader.

RELATED: Families, day cares feel strain of new COVID-19 health rules

They alerted the school, which suspended activities for a short time. That allowed them to take additional precautions and avoid a full-on outbreak in real-time.

"Unless people are going in and getting tested every day, this is really the only way we can do a community-wide test to see who's asymptomatic out there and how they're influencing the community," said company CEO Kent Ooster.

Exact Scientific is also working with the Whatcom County Health Department, the State Health Department, and the University of Washington to examine how our wastewater can help protect us from coronavirus.

Ooster believes what we flush down the toilet could be one of our most valuable weapons in the fight to contain the pandemic.

"God forbid we have a big outbreak," said Ooster. "But if we did we feel we could get an early signal to say this is coming, let's do something before it happens."

RELATED: Washington to spend $24 million in COVID relief funds for remote learning devices

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