The Plum Island Wastewater Treatment Facility has abruptly discontinued its COVID wastewater monitoring program | Photo by Rūta Smith

The reason for having predictive tools is to use them to predict. Unless, it seems, you’re involved in wastewater management in Charleston County.

As reporter Skyler Baldwin detailed last week, monitoring wastewater for early evidence of diseases is considered to be a smart early predictor for determining when illnesses will impact people. So as home tests for COVID-19 have usurped governments’ official test results and their ability to provide good data on the prevalence and virulence of the disease, you’d think local governments would rely on the viral equivalent of a canary in a coal mine — proactively testing of wastewater on a regular basis. 

“Having such data would be invaluable to being able to have an early warning for future outbreaks, including BA.2” for COVID, said Dr. Michael Sweat, director of MUSC’s Center for Global Health.

But Charleston Water System’s Plum Island treatment facility apparently has dropped its COVID wastewater testing program after being told by an official from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) that samples “were no longer needed.” DHEC denied its officials issued instructions to halt testing, but when presented with documentation, admitted “a miscommunication with this facility may have occurred that led to the discontinuation in sample collection.” 

This government finger-pointing and lack of clarity is enough to make you want to rip out your hair.

What’s worse is how well wastewater disease testing actually seems to be working around the nation to keep health officials alert to the spread and intensity of COVID-19 and other diseases. If you’re in the disease-monitoring business, there are basically three ways to try to figure out what’s going on:

  • Proactive testing, such as predictive wastewater disease testing for early monitoring of what’s occurring in geographic areas all over the country. The testing provides data before people might be infected, which helps alert communities about how they’ll be impacted. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added wastewater data to its COVID-19 data tracker. 

  • Case counts, based on per-person tests. These tests give a snapshot of what’s happening in real time with a disease. But you need enough verifiable reporting to draw conclusions about what’s going on in an area. Case count reporting has been hurt by increases in home testing.

  • Hospitalization rates. These are lagging indicators because they show what the disease is doing after people get very sick. Using this method to predict is like offering someone fresh-baked brownies, not knowing the children have already eaten them. It’s too late.

Regardless of why wastewater disease testing has stopped in Charleston County, it needs to get back on track so local scientists have the data as soon as practicable to keep the public informed. Not only should this help us avoid future COVID breakouts, but future pandemics.

Help the City Paper keep delivering excellence

Winner of top 2021 state journalism honors (best editorial writing and best cartoon), the Charleston City Paper brings you the Best of Charleston every day. Support our “unafraid” journalism with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.