Is Michigan prepared for the next COVID-19 surge? Wastewater testing may help

Posted at 5:07 AM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 06:41:04-04

(WXYZ) — COVID-19 cases are well off their omicron, but in the last week, cases have plateaued. In some communities, we're even seeing an uptick in cases and hospitalizations, and it's not just in Michigan.

Health leaders across the country are watching the omicron BA.2 variant. It's more transmissible than the original omicron strain, and it prompts the question, is Michigan ready for the next variant of concern.

Alyssa Stokely is a critical care nurse at Beaumont Trenton. SHe said it was all hands on deck in the cardiac care unit when COVID-19 cases were surging.

"We have a lot of cardiac patients, almost like an ICU step down. But when we got hit with COVID, we kind of turned into one of the COVID units," she said.

Now that cases are lower, her unit and many others are settling into a new normal. Stokely says it’s time for healthcare workers to reflect and recharge, and for healthcare systems to recruit.

"Because we don't know what could happen if we're going to get hit with another variant, a big wave, and we want to be prepared for that," she said.

Michigan's Chief Health Officer, Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, says we will definitely see more variants, and in all likelihood variants of concern. Unlike before, we have vaccines, better medical treatments and high-quality masks for kids and adults.

"And of course, over-the-counter tests. What we're doing as a state is making sure that we have our stockpiles of those materials," Bagdasarian said.

Part of the relationship with community partners is COVID-19 wastewater surveillance.

Across the state, researchers like Dr. Jeffrey Ram and Dr. William Shuster from Wayne State University are leading teams collecting and sampling wastewater watching for outbreaks.

Our Keenan Smith caught up with them when they were testing specimens from a sewer line 20 feet below the street in Midtown.
The relationship with community partners when they need to be rolled out.

"The signal in wastewater gives a couple of days, maybe even up to two weeks advance warning," Ram said.

"That gives us some time to get out to our public health authorities," Shuster added.

"So we're putting all of those pieces together and doing what we call horizon scanning so keeping our eye on not only metrics in the state but metrics around the country and around the world," Bagdasarian said.

So health leaders are preparing for the Omicron BA.2 variant or another COVID-19 surge. Stokely says she and her fellow Michigan nurses are ready, but urging hospital leaders across the area to build up the nurses, nursing assistants and respiratory therapists.

"As each wave would come, you can feel the burnout setting in a little bit. But having the staff, it definitely helps because we really rely on each other."

Bagdasarian says this COVID-19 quiet point is also the time to renew the push to increase vaccine uptake for groups where rates have been low - like among African Americans, and 20 to 30-year-olds.

So you'll still notice vaccine campaigns when those cases are lower than they were during the omicron surge.

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.