The ongoing COVID-19 wastewater testing program at Hope College that began in August has received a grant from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) as part of the state’s effort to establish a standardized and coordinated network of monitoring systems to provide an early-warning system for the presence of the virus.

Hope has received approximately $700,000 in equipment and funding through the statewide initiative.  The state’s grant program, which is a three-month pilot project running from October through December and administered by EGLE and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is focused on existing COVID-19 wastewater surveillance systems.  The overall program is a $10 million initiative funded from Michigan’s allocation of federal money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

As explained in the state’s announcement of the grant program, “Testing wastewater for viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, can be an effective tool for monitoring transmission of COVID-19 within a local community or at individual facilities. The virus is shed in human waste, including people who are not ill or have not yet become ill. The virus can then be detected by testing samples taken from sewers and wastewater treatment plants, with results often being available earlier than human clinical samples. These results can then inform local public health actions to prevent further spread within that community.”

Through the college’s wastewater testing program, a team collects and analyzes wastewater samples each weekday from nine campus residential zones each containing approximately 250 students.  Results are returned within 24 hours, and if elevated levels of the virus are detected in a sample, the college then tests that zone’s individual students.

Hope has also been conducting testing in partnership with the Holland Board of Public Works and the City of Holland, analyzing samples collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.  The EGLE grant has provided additional equipment and staffing to enable the college to expand its work, which will grow to include samples from the cities of Allegan and Zeeland and partnerships with the Allegan County and Ottawa County health departments.

The college’s program builds on expertise developed through water-quality research conducted at Hope across the two decades.  It is led by three members of the faculty — Dr. Aaron Best, who is the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Professor of Genetics and biology department chair; Dr. Brent Krueger, professor of chemistry; and Dr. Michael Pikaart, associate professor of chemistry — with a staff that includes recent Hope graduates who had participated in the research as students.

Hope initiated its program as part of a comprehensive, three-component plan for mitigating the presence of COVID-19 during the fall semester, which is running Aug. 17-Nov. 24 with a mix of in-person, hybrid and online classes.  The college also had every student, faculty member and staff member who was returning to campus take a COVID-19 test in advance of doing so, with those who tested positive isolating at home, to establish a baseline starting classroom presence of zero cases.  In addition, Hope has been testing a random sample of 1% of its students daily throughout the semester.