Fort Riley officials spearhead COVID-19 mitigation strategy
Courtesy photo: Portable auto-samplers, pictured here, are installed to take regularly-scheduled samples of wastewater. (Photo Credit: Kaitlin Knauer) VIEW ORIGINAL

Officials from 1st Infantry Division, Department of Public Health, at Irwin Army Community Hospital and Fort Riley are spearheading a COVID-19 mitigation strategy using wastewater sampling. This strategy identifies the virus days before a person develops symptoms, providing an opportunity for leadership to prevent a larger outbreak.

“I'm able to paint … a picture of what COVID is going to look like on the installation based on the concentrations of the COVID-19 gene sequences in the wastewater,” said Maj. Douglas Sharp, 1st ID Operations, Research and Systems Analyst.

Sharp refined his models to predict an outbreak about three to five days prior to individuals showing symptoms. After observing an increase near barracks, DPH officials consulted with barracks’ managers, reinforcing the practice of mitigation strategies.

“Maj. Sharp provides information to command based on his predictive models and public health reaches out to the affected areas,” said Capt. Jacob Pinion, Chief of Environmental Health at IACH. Through this outreach, predicted outbreaks have been prevented.

Fort Riley is one of two Army installations where this strategy is being used. Several agencies collaborate to accomplish this task.

Fort Riley Department of Public Works and Fort Riley Utility Services install portable auto-samplers that regularly take samples of wastewater. These samples are sent twice a week to a University of Kansas laboratory. From there, the data is sent to Sharp and Public Health to do “all sorts of crazy math,” Pinion said.

At Fort Riley, population change is a large variable in the collection of data points. Units deploy to and from Fort Riley, affecting wastewater samples. Sharp uses correlation studies to make sense of this variable in his calculations.

“That way, we can use that to allocate resources, prepare people, facilities for isolation, look at the calendar and say, ‘hey, we got, like, a field exercise going on at that exact same time’,” said Sharp.

The program is funded for one year, but Pinion points out that these devices could be used in the future for other studies.

“This could be altered to detect any virus in wastewater,” said Pinion.