Detectable – Silverton wastewater data on COVID-19 presence open to public

July 2022 Posted in Your Health

By Brenna Wiegand

In some ways more telling than tracked test results, the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community may be seen in its wastewater.

Though Silverton has been taking samples and sending them to Oregon State University’s School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering twice a week for about a year, only lately have the ongoing results been made available to the public in a digestible form thanks in large part to the efforts of Silverton City Councilor Dana Smith.

“Knowing what level of COVID concentration was in our wastewater two or three weeks ago doesn’t do anything  for something like planning what we’re doing this weekend,” Smith said. “If we can shorten the turnaround time and present the data to the public in a visually meaningful way, it can be useful in decision-making around our own risk.”

Smith worked with the parties involved to develop a system that would streamline turnaround time and make results as accessible and as understandable to the general public as possible.

At the risk of sounding indelicate, Troy Kemper, Silverton Water Quality Supervisor, reminds us that what goes into our bodies must come out in the wastewater and that it’s just a matter of learning how to test for a given substance.


“There is a laundry list of new contaminants that we continue to discover and begin monitoring so we can figure out if it’s safe for the environment,” Kemper said. “Lately our industry is concerned with prescription medications which, unlike COVID or E. coli, which are killed in the treatment process, pass right through, intact.

“Once those COVID microorganisms get into the sewer they’re no longer active; they need body temperature to continue to grow and thrive,” Kemper said, “but you can still test for their presence.”

The City created a graph for its website to interpret the numbers that compose the data it receives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the presence of coronavirus.

As of press time, the level of COVID in city wastewater was the highest it has been since February and since May Silverton has been hovering between the “Strong” and “Very Strong” concentration levels at the top of the chart.

Per the website, being in the
“Very Strong” category indicates a severe COVID-19 outbreak:

“Extended periods in this range have previously been linked with increased hospitalization and fatalities. Implementing additional preventative measures would be highly encouraged,” the guidelines read.

Authorities say tracking the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in wastewater samples can provide a timely warning of COVID-19’s spread in communities on a week-by-week basis and whether the trend is up or down.

“Over the past month and a half, the entire state of Oregon has seen a pretty significant surge in the number of community members with COVID and what we’re referring to here is a slightly different variant of Omicron than last winter’s surge,” said Jonathan Avery, President of Legacy Silverton Medical Center and Legacy’s Willamette Region at large. “The number of patients coming to us showing symptoms has been steadily climbing up since early June, characterized by an increase in hospitalizations, which, over the Legacy Health coverage area, had gone as low as about 30 patients in bed every day. With the recent surge that number was creeping back up into the 90s.

“That is still far short of where we were last winter and fall with the Delta surge when Legacy Health as a whole had as many as 200 COVID-positive patients across our system of hospitals, so this one is relatively insignificant compared to what we’ve become accustomed to in the last year, but it’s definitely real,” Avery said. “The current variant appears to be a milder strain that doesn’t hit you as hard. Even though the number of people in the community that have COVID is extremely high, the percentage of those ill enough to be hospitalized is low compared to the past surges.”

Kaley Turney works in the mental health field and is mother to two young children.

“I have heard of COVID being in the wastewater, not Silverton in particular, but I have heard,” Turney said. “It does not change how we live and especially how I raise my kids.

“We wash our hands and stay home when we are sick, but I will never put a mask on my children,” she said. “COVID has been so detrimental to kids’ mental health. COVID is something we will all have to live with and not something we should live our lives fearing 24/7.”

As with flu shots, the vaccines developed for COVID can’t predict the virus’ evolving nature, but they play a significant role in stemming the tide of critically ill patients.

“A good percentage of people are now vaccinated and quite a few folks have gotten their boosters,” Avery said. “That is helping protect them from severe illness which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing.”

The Omicron strain currently working its way through the population carries lighter symptoms – for most – but no one knows what long-term effects the virus may leave behind.

“My mother lived through rheumatic fever as a girl, but it turned out later that she and many others of her generation had been living with heart valve damage ever since,” Councilor Smith said.

“My concern is not so much for me but for my seven-month-old grandson who isn’t eligible for vaccines yet,” Smith said. “A lot of people are thinking that COVID is a minor thing, but I’m sure that back in the day, my grandparents didn’t think much of rheumatic fever, either.”

Local artist Barbara Bassett watches the numbers and is an involved grandparent who has an immediate family member with a serious medical condition.

“It just seems smart to follow the science and stay informed,” Bassett said. “Fortunately, my daughter is a physician and she guided me to intelligent resources, making it easier to follow the local/regional numbers and adjust my behavior accordingly.

“For me and my family and close friends, it just makes sense to modify inside activities or wear a mask if the concentration of COVID in our wastewater indicates ‘Strong’ to ‘Very Strong’ and then ease back out with larger groups when we’re in the ‘Moderate’ to ‘Low’ range,” Bassett added.  

“I wish people were being more careful, but I am also resigned to the fact that it’s a pie-in-the-sky hope; that some people are never going to wear masks,” Smith said. “A lot have died, but they were convinced it was more harmful to breathe through a mask than to roll the dice with COVID.”

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