Early warning of a COVID-19 surge on a university campus based on wastewater surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 at residence halls

Sci Total Environ. 2022 May 15:821:153291. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.153291. Epub 2022 Jan 25.


As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, monitoring the disease at different scales is critical to support public health decision making. Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater can supplement surveillance based on diagnostic testing. In this paper, we report the results of wastewater-based COVID-19 surveillance on Emory University campus that included routine sampling of sewage from a hospital building, an isolation/quarantine building, and 21 student residence halls between July 13th, 2020 and March 14th, 2021. We examined the sensitivity of wastewater surveillance for detecting COVID-19 cases at building level and the relation between Ct values from RT-qPCR results of wastewater samples and the number of COVID-19 patients residing in the building. Our results show that weekly wastewater surveillance using Moore swab samples was not sensitive enough (6 of 63 times) to reliably detect one or two sporadic cases in a residence building. The Ct values of the wastewater samples over time from the same sampling location reflected the temporal trend in the number of COVID-19 patients in the isolation/quarantine building and hospital (Pearson's r < -0.8), but there is too much uncertainty to directly estimate the number of COVID-19 cases using Ct values. After students returned for the spring 2021 semester, SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in the wastewater samples from most of the student residence hall monitoring sites one to two weeks before COVID-19 cases surged on campus. This finding suggests that wastewater-based surveillance can be used to provide early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks at institutions.

Keywords: COVID-19; Campus; Residence hall; SARS-CoV-2; Wastewater surveillance.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • RNA, Viral
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Universities
  • Wastewater*
  • Wastewater-Based Epidemiological Monitoring


  • RNA, Viral
  • Waste Water