(CBS DETROIT)– As COVID-19 outbreaks continue in Southeast Michigan, a project that collects untreated sewage samples aims to predict when an outbreak will occur.

“We were able to see that you really could detect viruses up to one to two weeks before that data is collected at the health department.” Said Palencia Mobley, P.E. Deputy Director & Chief Engineer with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department

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In 2017, Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority partnered with Michigan State University to sample untreated sewage in 9 different zip codes in and around the city. The purpose was to detect viruses in these communities, and Dr. Irene Xagoraraki, PhD. with MSU College of Engineering says they have been successful in their findings.

“The common cold viruses we found at the time, hepatitis viruses.”

Now, the program has expanded to search for the COVID-19 virus in sewage. During a virtual round table today, representatives from the agencies involved discussed how critical this pilot program is during the pandemic.

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“If we were just providing data that confirmed medical cases, this is a silly way of doing it, but the fact is since we can provide some advance notice to the public health community, that’s very interesting and potentially a potent tool.” Said Dr. John Norton, PhD. the Great Lakes Water Authority Director of Energy, Research, and Innovation

MSU has been collecting waste samples in three different zip codes in each Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. The team is still working out logistics with the project but says once it’s operational, the data will be released to health officials.

 Denise Fair, the  City of Detroit Chief Public Health Officer, said during the round table, “As soon as they detect a possible outbreak, we’re going to be notified.”

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In turn, officials will contact residents who may be affected to slow the spread of COVID-19 and any other viruses that may arise.