NMU lab monitoring wastewater for COVID

Alysse Masko, a nursing student at Northern Michigan University, works at a blood drive on Wednesday at NMU’s Jamrich Hall. The event was to address a blood shortage, taking precautions against COVID-19 at the same time. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University biology professor Josh Sharp and students in his lab are monitoring Marquette wastewater to safeguard against COVID-19, applying the same methods they have used to test local beach water for E. coli.

NMU announced it is participating in a statewide, $10 million grant-funded pilot program in which local public health departments are coordinating with universities and other entities on COVID-19 wastewater testing programs, which could be an early warning system for virus spread or outbreaks.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, as well as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, provided the grant funding for the program to establish a standardized and coordinated network of monitoring systems.

EGLE reported that testing wastewater for viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, can be effective for monitoring transmission of COVID-19 within a local community or at individual facilities. The virus is shed in human waste, including from people who are not ill or have not yet become ill.

The virus can 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 be part of local public health actions to prevent further spread within those communities.

Michigan is leveraging its existing network of laboratories, including the NMU lab, involved in monitoring the state’s beaches for E. coli. These labs are equipped to test for viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 and can support local wastewater testing efforts.

For both testing applications, Sharp relies on real-time polymerase chain reaction, a molecular microbiology technique that amplifies targeted DNA molecules.

“All PCR requires is that you have a unique gene sequence you can amplify,” Sharp said in a news release. “It doesn’t matter what organism it is. You can tailor PCR to detect whichever one you’re interested in. So, it’s just a matter of adapting it for COVID-19.”

Sharp said PCR’s effectiveness was demonstrated recently in East Lansing. The technology detected COVID-19 in the wastewater at Michigan State University about five days before there were reports of a spike in cases tied to a local restaurant and brew pub.

“It can give you an early warning of what’s potentially going on — a snapshot of what’s happening in a community,” Sharp said. “Depending on where you sample from the sewer, you can localize it.

“In Marquette, we’ll take it from the wastewater treatment plant for a snapshot of the city as a whole. There’s also the potential to sample from various stations that service different areas of city, or even campus specifically.”

Sharp was first recruited to assist with the beach water monitoring project and has used PCR in that capacity to detect E. coli, an organism found in animal and human fecal material. He said high E. coli levels could signal the presence of more serious infectious agents also found in fecal matter, such as hepatitis and norovirus, which would likely require beaches to close.

In E. coli monitoring, water samples are collected and taken to Sharp’s campus lab, where they are pulled through a filter that captures all of the bacteria. DNA is extracted from the filter, with probes specifically for E. coli. Those are put into the PCR instrument to see if the E. coli DNA can be amplified.

“Adapting this process to COVID-19 requires a little more work because the virus is a lot smaller than a bacteria,” Sharp said. “There’s some special filtration that has to happen first. After that, the process is very similar. We just swap out probes for E. coli with probes for COVID-19.”

After Sharp became involved in the beach water project, a staff member at EGLE contacted him about potentially continuing a similar COVID-19 monitoring project.

Students are able to use a PCR machine that monitors fluorescence when DNA is amplified in real time, said Sharp, who noted that this skill set can be applied to many different fields and applications.

Sharp said the state funding for the COVID monitoring project enabled NMU to purchase a more sophisticated version of that instrument. Digital droplet PCR is more sensitive than conventional PCR and allows for easier quantification of viral levels in a specific sample. It will also support a research technician to help analyze multiple samples per day and train students in the procedures.

Acquiring ddPCR technology will allow NMU students to participate in pathogen detection research that uses the most current advances in PCR technology, Sharp said.

“The COVID-19 project is a great learning experience for students because it allows students to see public health research in action,” he said.

Sharp said the project is a collaborative effort that encompasses a network of Michigan research laboratories, local and state health departments, and city wastewater monitoring management. The project potentially opens the door to additional research avenues in the future since ddPCR technology has multiple applications such as bacterial/viral detection, gene expression measurement, mutation detection and cancer research.

Munising Legion exposed

The Luce-Mackinac-Alger-Schoolcraft District Health Department is reporting a growing number of cases of COVID-19 in Alger County associated with an event on Oct. 2 at the American Legion in Munising.

LMAS said the Legion closed on Oct. 5 due to two positive cases in persons who were in attendance. As of Sunday, the number of cases associated with the Oct. 2 event has grown to 24.

The department asks that those at the Legion on Oct. 2 who have symptoms to contact their health care providers. If they have been notified by LMAS as being close contacts of any person with COVID-19 and told to quarantine from 14 days of their last contact with them, it asks those quarantine guidelines be followed.

Anyone notified as testing positive for COVID-19 are urged to follow their isolation instructions. According to the American Legion-Munising Facebook page, it will remain closed until at least Nov. 1.

NMU holds blood drive

Northern Michigan University conducted a blood drive on Wednesday at Jamrich Hall, in partnership with the Upper Peninsula Regional Blood Center, to address a blood shortage.

NMU nursing student Mallory Pittler said all blood taken in during the drive will stay in the U.P.

She acknowledged, though, the event required a few special practices because of COVID-19.

For instance, face masks and face shields were used during the blood drive.

“It was challenging,” Pittler said.

NMU continues to update its Safe on Campus dashboard that show statistics related to COVID-19.

The most recent cumulative numbers on the dashboard, found at https://nmu.edu/safe-on-campus/, show that between July 27 and Wednesday, there have been 75 cumulative COVID-19 positive cases. These include include 30 on-campus students, 39 off-campus students and six employees.

There currently are 10 active cases, all with off-campus students.

Police to begin fingerprint services

The Marquette Police Department will begin fingerprint services on Tuesday, with future services to be from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Appointments, which will be required, can be made by visiting www.marquettemi.gov/fingerprinting/. Those requesting fingerprinting will be asked a series of health questions before entering the police station, and will be required to wear a mask and have their temperature taken.

Midtown to reopen

Midtown Bakery & Cafe, 317 Iron St., Negaunee, announced on Facebook it will reopen on Wednesday, with hours set from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Midtown announced its closure on Sept. 28 due to COVID-19 exposure at the business.

Open enrollment addressed

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services on Wednesday called on the Trump Administration to extend the 2021 Health Insurance Marketplace open enrollment period to give more time to the thousands of Michiganders who lost health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitmer’s office indicated that a report from the National Center for Coverage Innovation found that Michigan experienced a 46% increase in the number of uninsured adults from February to May, underscoring the need for federal action.

Open enrollment for 2021 coverage is scheduled to run Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Michigan is joining Wisconsin to call for extending the deadline to sign up to the end of January. Nearly 260,000 Michiganders got coverage for 2020 through the Health Insurance Marketplace, nearly 80% of whom qualified for free or reduced cost coverage through federal tax subsidies.

In addition to open enrollment, special enrollment periods are currently available to people who experienced a qualifying life event in 2020, including job loss or reduction in income, but who did not enroll. Also, American Indians and Alaska natives can enroll in a Marketplace plan at any time and can change plans once a month. To determine eligibility for a special enrollment period, visit healthcare.gov/screener.


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