CDC Updates NACWA Staff on COVID-19 Surveillance Efforts; Congress Requests Information

(August 19, 2020) – NACWA held an initial call with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) lead COVID-19 wastewater-based epidemiological (WBE) surveillance team on Friday, August 14. Over the summer, CDC held informational webinars notifying the water sector and others of their intention to launch a National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) identifying “sentinel” POTWs and their efforts to surveil wastewater for COVID-19 RNA trends and occurrence.

NACWA staff learned from CDC that because state health departments will be the end users of surveillance data and ultimately responsible for making local public health decisions based on such data, states are highly involved in selecting POTWs to participate in the initial rollout of the NWSS. To help states in this effort, CDC informed NACWA that a dedicated CDC website containing guidance is expected any day.

On the call, CDC highlighted that the objective of the NWSS is to drill down on the data that will be most useful for states making public health decisions. Their methodology seeks to advance these goals (e.g., sampling frequency every 3 days as opposed to weekly) and it became clear CDC may view “too much” or “wrong” data as being potentially problematic. CDC views the NWSS as part of building a sustainable platform for WBE surveillance for future diseases and public health issues and having a robust standard of practice set in place will be helpful.

CDC continues to appreciate the active surveillance work individual utilities are doing and recognized utilities have associated costs to continue collecting samples and analyzing data. Having additional support will help CDC continue their efforts for active disease surveillance as well as advocate for ongoing research. One of the significant research hurdles continues to be the lack of understanding of the concentration of viral shedding (RNA concentration) from an individual (asymptomatic or symptomatic) and how this concentration changes over time and space.

In a related development, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Republican minority is interested in learning more from the CDC about their COVID-19 wastewater surveillance efforts and sent a letter on August 12 to CDC Director Robert Redfield. Specifically, committee Republicans are interested in “how CDC is examining, developing, and utilizing wastewater as a surveillance tool for COVID-19 to improve the U.S.’ COVID-19 surveillance efforts, including CDC’s efforts to work with other agencies, private companies, academia, or other researchers already doing similar work on wastewater surveillance,” and is seeking a briefing before August 26. A similar letter was sent to  EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, requesting information about the actions the Agency has taken to help the CDC improve surveillance of COVID-19 in the United States.

From the call with CDC there is a consensus regarding the importance of greater financial support, training, and communication. As NACWA continues its advocacy on COVID-19, we will continue to engage with CDC, as well as Congress, and will be setting up an informal call later in September with federal and state stakeholders along with NACWA members. For more information please contact Emily Remmel, NACWA’s Director of Regulatory Affairs.