By candace.tyler in Stories May 10, 2024

Wastewater Science Comes to Florida’s Atlantic Coast

A water quality scientist discusses his introduction to wastewater-based epidemiology and the new science that benefits their community.

As the Director of Information Services for the Loxahatchee River District, Kenneth “Bud”  Howard monitors key water data collected from a wastewater treatment system  that serves some 100,000 people in northern Palm Beach and southern Martin  Counties along Florida’s eastern shoreline. 

A scientist and trained ecologist, Howard leads the District’s Wild Pine  Ecological Laboratory, Customer Service, and Information Technology  departments. For years, his job was to monitor the quality of the treated water  coming out of the Loxahatchee treatment facility, but in 2020, as the  pandemic began to rage, that role expanded. There was a new focus on  something in the wastewater coming into the District’s treatment facility,  owing to the then-emerging science of wastewater testing for SARS-CoV-2,  the virus that causes COVID-19.  

“You saw it clear as day in the data, a week or 10 days ahead of the clinical  results. You saw the spike of illnesses coming,” Howard says of his initial  realization of the value of wastewater testing. “That critical lead time  attracted attention. People in the community were dumbfounded by the fact  that we could tell them well ahead of time that spikes in COVID cases were  going to show up in the evening news a week later.” 

Days before some people even show symptoms or head to the doctor, those  infected with COVID-19 “shed” fragments of genes from the virus when they  go to the bathroom. With wastewater testing for COVID-19, that shedding  shows up in sewage flowing into the Loxahatchee treatment facility. 

A Complete Picture 

The Loxahatchee River District makes local wastewater surveillance data that  is collected and analyzed by WastewaterSCAN and a national lab partner  working with CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) available  on its website for all to see. It has become a go-to resource for community  leaders, media, and most importantly, everyday Floridians to access timely,  easy-to-understand, and reliable data from their local community about  infectious diseases, and to make decisions that impact their health. 

“We had a couple of reporters at the local news who got very engaged and  helped make us a household name,” Howard says of his growing role as a  COVID and other disease data provider in the local media.  

As circumstance met expertise, Howard’s faith in science and data led the  Loxahatchee River District to bring the science of wastewater monitoring for  COVID-19—and now more than 10 additional infectious diseases—to Jupiter, Florida,  and the surrounding area. 

“My background is science and I’m a data guy,” Howard says when asked how he  first learned about wastewater monitoring. “Early in the pandemic, I’d seen some  news articles come out with wastewater surveillance work going on in Europe.  We’re a very scientifically oriented organization so this emerging science was very  interesting to us.” 

With samples collected multiple times a week through its partnership with  WastewaterSCAN and participation in the NWSS, wastewater testing was a new  way to monitor relative infections for the Loxahatchee River District’s population of  100,000 people. Early in the pandemic, hospital admissions and clinical testing data,  the best metrics at the time, often lagged behind wastewater data—trailing  COVID-19’s surges by a week or two, making it difficult to get a complete picture of  current infection levels in the community. Wastewater data is typically available  within 48-72 hours of sample collection. 

Raising Awareness  

Howard, the scientist, understood immediately the potential value of wastewater  testing for a variety of audiences. He notified the local health department to make  them aware of the new method. The science was solid, and the data offered a fast,  reliable, and accurate way to detect and track COVID-19 infections.  

Not satisfied to stop with the public health community, the Loxahatchee River  District then made a key choice: “We wanted to provide this information to the  entire local community.” 

He dug up an email list of the principals and vice principals at the local schools and  let them know about the availability of the wastewater data through the District’s  website. Hospital staff soon followed. But it was when Howard connected with local  media, that things seeped into the public consciousness.  

“As the data just pour out, we showed them, ‘Look at this strong correlation between  the high concentrations we saw in the wastewater and the clinical cases,’” Howard  recalls of his growing trust in wastewater data. Several journalists in the area now  publish regular reports based on data he posts on the District’s website.  

As WastewaterSCAN has broadened its monitoring capabilities beyond COVID-19  to include influenza, RSV, mpox, norovirus, and a slate of other infectious pathogens,  the interest from the community has continued. 

Howard values WastewaterSCAN’s timely and reliable results, the ease  of automated data download for his visualizations, and the regular pace of data  updates that community members can use to inform their decision making. It has  become a valuable tool that helps Howard and his team accurately and effectively  make this information accessible to the community. These days, when Howard  attends meetings with community leaders and elected officials, he finds they  are “super interested” in the wastewater data for the community, themselves,  and their families. 

“They watch it,” Howard says. “I can tell you, they’re factoring this information  in to their personal health decisions. I see friends and colleagues and they ask about  the ‘cool wastewater surveillance stuff.’ They often joke, ‘Hey, Bud, how’s  the poop water?’”

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