As cases of the coronavirus surge in Oregon and the Portland area, a new initiative is hoping to detect outbreaks before they start.
The initiative from Oregon Health & Science University and Self Enhancement, Inc. will use saliva testing and wastewater screening to detect early signs of COVID-19 outbreaks in four outer east Portland neighborhoods hammered throughout the pandemic.
If the program works, it could be expanded to other parts of the city, but for now, researchers are hoping to help neighborhoods with some of the city’s most at-risk populations.
“For us, it’s a great opportunity to drill down and see where the need may be and possibly head off some of the negative impacts of COVID,” Anthony Deloney, SEI’s director of strategic initiatives, said in a post from OHSU about the project.
The effort will involve testing wastewater samples for coronavirus and establishing saliva testing sites in the same neighborhoods where people living in the area can receive free tests, with or without symptoms, over the next 10 weeks.
SEI said it strategically chose the neighborhoods in question — between 118th and 162nd streets along Southeast Powell Boulevard, and between 92nd and 159th streets along Northeast Sandy Boulevard.
“Our strength is in building community and getting the word out to the hardest-to-reach populations,” said Deloney, whose organization traditionally provides services to Black Oregonians. “That’s why we specifically picked those areas. A lot of our coordinators and frontline workers live in those communities, and we’re already meeting with our clients there regularly.”
The 97233 and 97236 ZIP codes along Powell have recorded the state’s third- and seventh-most coronavirus cases throughout the pandemic. Along Sandy, 97230 ranks ninth and 97220 ranks 23rd in Oregon.
This won’t be the first time wastewater is used to analyze COVID-19 in an Oregon community. Earlier in the pandemic, researchers from Oregon State University looked at genetic material in wastewater in several smaller Oregon communities to determine the prevalence of the disease, and that work is ongoing.
It’s more difficult to perform sewage surveillance in larger cities, such as Portland. Workers from the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services will collect samples from four manhole locations and send them to Washington County for evaluation.
The sewer collection sites are linked to neighborhoods with 1,000 to 2,000 residents each.
If the Portland initiative works to help slow the spread of coronavirus, Dr. Donna Hansel, chair of pathology in the OHSU School of Medicine and lead investigator on the study, believes it could be expanded into other parts of the city.
“This will be a great way to better focus testing,” Hansel said in the OHSU post, “which is going to continue to remain a more limited resource.”
Researchers hope to discover whether coronavirus in wastewater precedes rising cases that will later be identified through traditional testing. The availability of the saliva test — a spit test that isn’t invasive like the standard nasal swab — will also help officials find people who are infected.
Deloney said there is clear evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black communities. Nationally, studies have shown this to be true, although in Oregon Hispanics and Pacific Islanders have been the most disproportionately impacted.
“This is our attempt to get ahead of the curve,” Deloney added, “rather than behind it.”