Wastewater could be signalling a potential Omicron plateau: scientists

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Your toilet was never so important.

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Waste water samples taken in the GTA and southern Ontario show Omicron spread just might be peaking according to researchers at three universities testing the water samples.

“Our latest results which have been processed this week are giving maybe an early indication of a peak or a plateau,” said Claire Oswald from Ryerson’s Urban Water Research Centre.

“It’s a little too early to say that, but it’s looking like it’s heading in the right direction.”

Ryerson scientist collecting wastewater samples in November. Courtesy Alexandra Johnston, Ryerson

Ontario Technical University in Oshawa has noticed the same trend.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the waste water signal right now looks like it is starting to decelerate,” said Andrea Kirkwood, who leads the waste water sampling program.

“But not to the levels of November when we were still dealing with Delta,” she added.

Kirkwood said the reduction could also be due January’s strict lockdown measures.

A waste water surveillance team at the University of Guelph is awaiting more sampling and information before concluding Omicron is subsiding.

“Definitely, I would agree that it appears that the waste water signal has flattened, but I think we need more data before we can say that definitively,” Prof. Lawrence Goodridge said.

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With testing no longer as widely available, test results only give a partial view of Omicron’s spread.

On Friday, Dr. Brad Wouters, senior scientist with the University Health Network, tweeted, “with lack of meaningful case data waste water is the best indicator of new infections. Clear evidence we are over the peak in Ontario.”

“With the clinical data now being problematic or less reliable,” Ryerson’s Oswald said, “the waste water data has taken on a new importance.”

Public Health units across the province are using it as another tool to craft guidance.

Ryerson’s team collects from a treatment plant, six communities and eight facilities in Toronto and shares its information with the province and Toronto Public Health twice a week.

Scientists at all three universities say the next few weeks will be crucial in forming a more complete picture of where infection rates are headed. The resumption of school is expected to have an effect as more community contacts are made.

In the meantime, Oswald said, “like other places in the province, very early indications suggest that we’re peaking.”

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