As pandemic eases in Chattanooga, wastewater sentry stays alert for next surge

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Dr. Gabriel Perez, an environmental engineer with the city of Chattanooga, pours a sample of wastewater into a container to be tested for concentration of COVID-19 at the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Each Monday, Gabriel Perez goes through the methodical process of preparing, collecting and shipping raw sewage samples from Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility to be tested for traces of the virus that causes COVID-19.

It's not glamorous work, but public health experts say it's one of the most important tools to help the community spot warning signs of another COVID-19 surge - particularly now that testing and case reports are more sporadic than in the early days of the pandemic.

Perez, an environmental engineer with the city's Waste Resources Division, begins by preparing his work space with the sampling materials sent from Biobot Analytics, a start-up company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that specializes in the emerging science of mining wastewater for health information.

Since May 2020, Biobot has analyzed Chattanooga's sewage for genetic fragments of the coronavirus, which are found in sewer water flushed by infected people.