Inside a freezer at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin is a collection of wastewater samples, drawn from the city's two major treatment plants over the last month.
They're stashed away while a team of researchers finalizes their procedure for analyzing them. The goal? To measure the concentration of COVID-19 in the city's domestic wastewater in the hopes of detecting outbreaks sooner.
"Everybody has to flush," Associate Professor Dr. Mary Jo Kirisits told Austonia. "Everybody is contributing their sample on a daily basis."
The practice of studying waste
Kirisits, along with colleagues from the Cockrell School and the Texas Advanced Computing Lab, is working on the study, which was commissioned by Austin Water and is scheduled to run until June 2021.
The water utility is collecting samples three days a week, sometimes multiple times per day, for the researchers to analyze; they will share their results with Austin Public Health.
This type of wastewater analysis isn't new.
"Certainly looking and analyzing wastewater is something that has been done historically for other diseases where vehicles of transmission are being shed by feces," Kirisits said, adding that it continues to be used to detect polio in other countries.
Now research groups worldwide are applying the technique to monitor the spread of COVID-19.
Studies show that the viral RNA can appear in feces within three days of infection, which is much sooner than it takes symptoms to appear in some patients or for local hospital rates to reflect an uptick, according to an April report from the journal Nature.
Local health officials often lament this lag time between when an outbreak occurs and when it is reflected in test results or hospital admission rates.
But the hope is that this wastewater study can function as a kind of warning system, alerting researchers to any COVID-19 resurgences in the coming months. "If [cases] do start to uptick," Kirisits said, "we're going to be able to see that before the cases start arriving in the hospital."
How it helps contain a pandemic
Preparing the coolers.(Mary Jo Kirisitis)
The sooner researchers—and Austin Public Health officials—learn of an outbreak, the sooner they can act to contain it.
"If we find a hotspot in a part of Austin that hasn't been on the radar screen—because maybe people aren't getting tested in that area for whatever reason—we can say, 'Hey, maybe we need to increase the education about social distancing or mask wearing or hand washing in that area,'" Kirisits said. "Maybe we need to deploy more testing resources to that area."
Ideally, researchers will also be able to refine the sampling process by deploying autosamplers at different locations around Austin—such as inside a manhole—to help pinpoint where outbreaks may be occurring.
Relying on samples from the treatment plants, as is currently the case, means researchers can only know if an outbreak is occurring in the area served by one of the two treatment plants, each of which serves around half a million people.
"Really the point that we're at right now is to use this [COVID-19 concentration metric] to understand what's happening temporarily in our sewersheds here in Austin," Kirisits said. "It's going to be great when we get to the point that [it] is really coming down and it's below our detection limit."
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Mount Bonnell<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTUyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDEzODU5NX0.SQVQYQc5VpT_UQe-BQsexRgUp1yIUbjiB-Hz7cAgkUE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6a82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6909566cc1a80e66660ddb3153882a5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1599" data-height="1066" />
(Spawnzilla/CC)<p>Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjg0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjg2NjY4OH0.3hTVUhMTrJ7FkqWgYivC03M7NbQGhkvM85St6nSACF8/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C240%2C0%2C240&height=800" id="6db33" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be5523bfa32d06f91a0e0915e7f1fd3b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(MX/Wikimedia)<p>The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.</p>
Zilker Park<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDE0NzMzNn0.hE8NKm_6Ldoi36TZcTVHAbc9K6H1FWTqnI8cK60u3jY/img.jpg?width=980" id="2cb32" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4696ca4392a59a956761ae419b161a7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Mwyzykowski0821/Wikimedia)<p>Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).</p>
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTU2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTU1NDE2NX0.kM0EJgiwl60yCLYd2xMtqPUM9ukysu_KmQhMiP6XGMo/img.jpg?width=980" id="75e17" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="64cdd0ef728567c25261e17227855fe6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
(Austonia)<p><strong></strong>Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODY3MTE0NH0.yBqNznABvsJCBp_tdrREOMI20eWy3a4dNLwBbe4SKAc/img.jpg?width=980" id="135bf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c712742e6dbe4592a7294aad89b9f655" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1760" data-height="796" />
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.<br></p>
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTc0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEyNzM3Mn0.HATaya2WqEf1dRD6zO2WMvoCQii7mHKa9oJ9H2Huxqg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f503b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="96c77fa947db2d4ae07efc545785fc12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2040" data-height="1530" />
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)<p>Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.</p>
Red Bud Isle<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0MTk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTcwNDA4N30.ImQe01BIolSJVNBCJAFbQz1WfuDP8fitr_XXZWNytQk/img.jpg?width=980" id="767c3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a21655c41f9c7da188eb99dd0371d2dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lady bird lake dog winslow swimming" />
(Austonia)<p>Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been <a href="https://austonia.com/city/algae-killing-dogs" target="_blank">toxic algae blooms two years in a row</a>.<br></p>
Wild Basin Preserve<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzEyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTMwODY3N30.aw3W_bvqThNlF_9WGE5GVte7ajhJoPQxQEUnM4FCT4Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="0b1a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="615c86b10cc2c034b9518f73534cad3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.</span><span style="background-color: initial;"></span><br></p>
Barton Springs<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTY4NzMzMH0.1Nd-a5CEiPDSaLOB_nJYAZiHC8dZVvS5l4QOJhHsvd8/img.jpg?width=980" id="721f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="82bc4f00174755913a86a103f01ad6ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="720" data-height="403" />
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area. </span><br></p>
Congress Avenue Bridge<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkyNjcxNn0.ieWjFaKRtsoVrudyGVtp_q3xlM8ghFgd7Y-QZqQVOoo/img.jpg?width=980" id="c4dfa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e69c74aa25973d14285a49d8b070bd1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="641" data-height="426" />
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.</p>
The Middle of Town Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzExOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjIxNDQzN30.DAnxtXZTYH60LicTxw4J_qzJ7CSZ2ez7hNi8qFaxjJ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a81af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dc3198f3a64889a16d7f442f56e0a2c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
(Laura Figi/Austonia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.</span><br></p>