The Houston Health Department announced today it is now recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a National Wastewater Surveillance System Center of Excellence.
Houston and Colorado are the only jurisdictions so far to have earned the designation.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department and Rice University began testing the wastewater in May 2020 to more quickly identify emerging outbreaks and hotspots needing interventions to help stop the spread of the virus.
Researchers, scientists, engineers, and public health professionals from the department, Houston Public Works, Rice University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Statistics Department, and early on, Baylor College of Medicine, were all part of developing Houston’s wastewater surveillance system.
“Earning the CDC’s Center of Excellence award demonstrates just how important our wastewater surveillance work is to public health, the city, and the entire country,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “This initiative allowed HHD to identify and contain the virus from spreading in our community. I want to commend HHD and all the partners for their hard work and dedication to protecting Houstonians.”
The department monitors SARS-CoV-2 at 39 wastewater treatment plants, 73 manholes, and 63 lift stations for more than two million people across Houston.
People infected with COVID-19 shed viral particles. By testing the wastewater, the health department can track whether levels of the virus in different areas of the city are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.
An interactive dashboard displays levels of the virus in samples collected weekly. The data helps identify the prevalence of the virus at the community level.
“After two and a half years of dedication to this initiative, wastewater analysis has become a key indicator of COVID-19 trends,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University. “This has become increasingly important in recent months due in part to the rise in at-home testing, which is unreported.”
The department and Rice University have established the city as a leader in wastewater epidemiology that supports public health. Designation as a center of excellence enables continued collaboration between the department and Rice University.
“This award exemplifies the value of strong partnerships between universities and the communities they serve,” said Rice University President Reginald DesRoches. “By working together, experts from Rice University, the Houston Health Department, and Houston Public Works, found that wastewater-based epidemiology was a powerful approach to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. This knowledge can now be standardized, shared with other communities, and used as an overall public health tool.”
“This has become a bold initiative for the city of Houston and for Rice,” said Dr. Katherine Ensor, the university’s Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics. “It is a perfect example of a successful city-university partnership built from collaborative research and the translation of results to directly benefit people and our communities.”
Houston’s center of excellence award will also help the department share its expertise with cities across the United States and places it center stage as the CDC develops standardized methods for this new public health tool.
The center will provide trainings to state and local health departments, and other entities that plan to conduct wastewater surveillance. Trainings will focus on Houston’s experience and cover topics such as sampling and analysis, statistical interpretation, and public health intervention.
Data from the department’s award-winning wastewater surveillance system is published on the department’s interactive COVID-19 monitoring dashboard.