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Health and Medicine

New Form of COVID-19 Testing Begins in Rogue Valley

Man Hole Cover

Jackson county cities begin testing sewage for COVID-19.

Individual coronavirus testing makes up most of the data that public health agencies use. Municipalities rely heavily on individual testing data for decisions about how to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But a new form of community-wide testing can offer a different look at the virus.

Medford, Ashland and other cities in Jackson county have begun a unique form of COVID-19 testing that will deliver results faster and on a wider scale than any current method. Beginning this week, several Rogue Valley cities are testing sewage for COVID-19. This method can detect if the virus is in the community up to 48 hours before anyone develops symptoms.

The partner in the project that will be providing the analysis and test results is RAIN Incubator, based in Tacoma, Washington.

“When you measure the sewage, you measure everybody — not just the wealthy,” Founder of RAIN Incubator, David Hirschberg says, noting that inequalities in the health care system have created disparities in access to clinical testing and that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color. “Sewage is a way to unbiasedly test populations.”

Scott Fleury, Ashland’s interim Director of Public Works, explains how the results can be used.

"They’ll provide us the information in a map form, and based on the sampling with COVID in it, they’ll be able to kind of give us a general idea if we’re seeing increased levels of COVID in the community or not. We would use it -- as far as a city organization -- to potentially help us make decisions on how we phase our reopening as a city, for the safety of employees and of the public."

Fleury adds that testing sewage acts as an early warning system because it can detect the virus 2 or more days ahead of any physical symptoms. The results will become part of the data the city uses to phase a reopening of local business.

The first results are expected early next week. Fleury’s department will also provide the results to the Jackson County Health department.