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Oklahoma researchers find increased COVID, flu levels in wastewater

OU Hudson College of Public Health
Wastewater surveillance in Oklahoma has become an important tool for predicting surges and clusters of infections.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma's Hudson College of Public Health are discovering increased levels of influenza in wastewater testing.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Katrin Kuhn is part of a team that monitors viral levels in wastewater testing. At sites in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, researchers say they’ve seen more influenza type A — a sign Kuhn says is an indicator of more people having the flu. The team has also found increased levels of COVID-19.

"When we see a surge in influenza or SARS-CoV-2, we get in touch with our collaborators in the city health department," said Kuhn. "We tell them how many weeks this has been going on, for instance, we can also tell them which neighborhoods in particular are heavily affected by the surge."

She said this prompts public health officials to take action, like increasing testing or messaging about vaccines, and preparing hospitals for possible surges. She's concerned a lack of widespread mitigation efforts this year, like masking and social distancing, could lead to a strain on public health systems this holiday season.

"We have been fearing that there would be extra pressure on people’s immune systems this year because now we’ve started living a little bit normally again, and we are exposed to these viruses. And we do fear that it might put ultimately extra pressure on the hospitals that obviously having to deal with a lot of COVID patients now," said Kuhn.

Kuhn says the influenza type her team is seeing is covered by this year’s flu shot, and recommends getting those vaccines to keep everyone safe during the holidays.

Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter
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