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Health, Science and Environment

The University of Michigan is testing campus for environmental indicators of COVID-19

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In an effort to try and stay ahead of the coronavirus the University of Michigan is testing the campus environment for signs of COVID-19.

In-person classes at University began on Monday, but before students arrived researches took environmental samples across campus.

Those samples included air on buses, scrubbing dormitory surfaces, and taking sewage samples.

Rick Neitzel is in the school of public health at U of M.

“The one thing our study is not doing is figuring out whether the virus is infectious or viable,” he said. “We’re looking essentially just for evidence that the virus was there.”

The University is conducting regular testing of its campus body. According to a University tracking dashboard, there have been over 2,000 COVID tests of the community. Of those tests, the University identified 47 positive cases.

Neitzel said testing the campus community is important.

“But if we don’t understand where the virus is in the environment we don’t know where people are getting exposed,” he said. “So having this information, this data, on exposure can help us be even more thoughtful and guided on these interventions that we do.”

Neitzel said there is also some evidence that COVID can appear in sewage before an outbreak occurs.

“There’s some emerging evidence in the scientific literature that sewage - that in fact, the coronavirus shows up in feces may be up to a week before you start to see an outbreak,” he said. “It may be that those sewage samples can serve as a canary in the coal mine or an early warning flag.”

Neitzel said that if in-classes end up being canceled due to an outbreak their study would have less interest in classroom spaces but the sampling would likely continue for dorm rooms, busses, and other locations where there would still be campus traffic.