A Montana State University team will start testing Big Sky’s wastewater this week to help track whether the novel coronavirus is trending up or down in the resort town.
Researchers from the Walk Lab at MSU will collect samples weekly and work with the Gallatin City-County Health Department to monitor the virus’s particles in wastewater, which are mostly intact but no longer infectious by the time they reach treatment plants. The concentration of the virus’s genetic material indicates COVID-19’s prevalence in the community.
The project is supported by a nearly $80,000 grant from the Big Sky Relief Fund, which was created by the Big Sky Resort Area District in partnership with Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation and Spanish Peaks Community Foundation.
The effort has committed over $2 million in COVID-19 relief for individuals and families, small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.
Health Officer Matt Kelley says wastewater monitoring offers one metric to help make decisions as Gallatin County navigates through the pandemic.
"No one indicator here is a panacea,” Kelley said.
The number of active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths will also play a role.
Another MSU lab led by Associate Professor Blake Wiedenheft has been analyzing samples from the Bozeman Water Reclamation Facility since Mar. 30. The team’s preliminary results indicate the amount of the virus in the Bozeman population declined during the stay-at-home order.
Health Officer Kelley says the health department is looking at working with MSU to expand wastewater monitoring in West Yellowstone and other communities in the valley.
“We’re somewhat constrained by lab capacity and we’re somewhat constrained by how those sites operate, and whether they have automatic sampling machines," Kelley said.
Biobot Analytics, a Boston-based company that’s analyzing samples from more than 400 wastewater treatment plants for the novel coronavirus in 40 states, has partnered with Lewis and Clark County and the cities of Helena, Great Falls and Livingston.