All around the world, poop is being tested for SARS-CoV-2.

As of this writing, 2,691 sites—in 57 countries and at 263 universities, according to the “CovidPoops19” Summary of Global Sars-CoV-2 Wastewater Monitoring Efforts by University of California-Merced researchers—are being tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. But until May, the only site in the Coachella Valley where testing was done was in the city of Palm Springs.

Because of the high costs, as well as the limited number of facilities that can process test results, only a small fraction of the country’s wastewater agencies are currently doing this testing—despite increasing evidence that wastewater testing can act as a figurative canary in a coal mine regarding impending increases in COVID-19 cases.

In Indio, the Valley Sanitary District, under the direction of general manager Beverli Marshall, participated in a nationwide pilot-testing program offered by Boston-based Biobot Analytics, in partnership with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Health. The program launched back in May.

“When the CDC, the NIH and the HHS contracted with Biobot Analytics to be the vendor … they sent word out to all the various agencies saying, ‘Hey … there’s this great opportunity if you’re interested in participating,’” Marshall told the Independent during a recent interview. “Of course, I sent that to staff and asked if we can take this on, because there’s additional work doing composite sampling. It’s not like (you’re) going out there and taking a little eyedropper and suctioning up some of the wastewater, then saying, ‘OK, here you go.’”

Marshall told the Independent that the district did sampling twice a week for an initial 12-week period. As chance would have it, the testing period began in May, coinciding with the rise in local infection levels caused by the rapidly spreading Delta variant.

“It was interesting that (the Delta variant arrived in earnest) right about that time, because, indeed, it showed that we were starting to see those spikes,” Marshall said. “Obviously, our testing shows just a little microcosm of our (geographical) area, but if you looked at the data from Palm Springs, you’d see that they were experiencing a similar trend. So, I don’t know that it was necessarily alarming, but I think it was definitely useful.”

The pilot program formally ended in August, but the district had extra testing kits, so Marshall’s team kept sending in samples to be tested, the results of which were added to the pilot project’s database. However, those kits eventually ran out—and Marshall said her district needs help to continue testing. She estimates it will cost about $15,000 to pay for testing through the end of the year.

Although the district manages wastewater for the residents of Indio, it is not a department of the city, like the Palm Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant is, and therefore receives no operational funding from the city of Indio. Instead, the Valley Sanitary District is a California “special district.” According to the California Special Districts Association website: “Special districts are local governments created by the people of a community to deliver specialized services essential to their health, safety, economy and well-being. A community forms a special district, which are political subdivisions authorized through a state’s statutes, to provide specialized services the local city or county do not provide.”

Marshall pointed out that special districts were left out of the federal government’s COVID-19 stimulus and spending packages.

Beverli Marshall, the Valley Sanitary District’s general manager.

“Cities, counties and schools all received dedicated funds for COVID-19-related expenses, and to do all sorts of things … to identify, track, trace and report COVID-19 related issues. The only ones who were not included in that were special districts,” she said. “… So the cities or counties or (other) entities that could do this (testing) were most likely going to be the ones that got funding related to COVID-19, and then they could use those funds to keep it going. … Imagine the data we would have throughout the system, meaning all over the United States, if we had been given that funding.”

So … what can be done to get the Valley Sanitary District the extra funding needed to continue the testing? Marshall said she’s reached out to the city of Indio, Riverside County and the state in hopes of getting help.

“There are a couple of different funding routes the district could explore,” District 56 State Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia told the Independent via email. “I am supportive and highly encourage the Valley Sanitary District to reach out to our office to share more details on the project so that we can help identify the best funding opportunities for them. We have established a successful track record of securing funding for local special districts and municipalities, and our office is readily available to help initiate contact with appropriate departments or agencies.”

Marshall said she plans to switch over to GT Molecular for testing—the same viral testing firm that Palm Springs has been using for more than a year—because the cost is a little lower. She said she does not want to stop testing, because she does not want to lose valuable data.

“So we will continue to sample,” she said. “Also, I’ve submitted requests to Riverside County for consideration of future funding out of the money that they receive from (federal COVID-19) recovery funds.”

In response to the Independent’s query about available funding, County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez wrote in an email: “We are reaching out to Valley Sanitary District to find out the specifics of the district’s funding request or requests. The Riverside County Board of Supervisors may have a discussion on the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds. … The county supervisors a couple of weeks ago allocated $15 million in ARPA funds to support child-care centers.”

When the Independent spoke to Marshall back in February, well before the Valley Sanitary District joined the pilot testing program, she said: “We can test at a more macro level by using wastewater. So there is room for that discussion even beyond COVID-19—but we (wastewater service providers) have to be at the table.”

Marshall said during our recent interview: “You know, we’re still not at the table. But I think that with this partnership, this pilot project, showing that there is this knowledge—this data source out there that (public officials) can tap into—I think it starts moving that conversation. I know there have been a couple of articles in peer-reviewed journals about wastewater surveillance and public health that have come out in the last six months or so. They talk about what has been shown … and the fact is that it’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the kind of information that wastewater can provide. … We’re not going to help hand out vaccines, or make health decisions—but if you’re looking for a data source, it’s there.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...