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University of Louisville documenting herd immunity using wastewater

Posted at 9:24 AM, May 21, 2021

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As vaccinations slow down across the country, many experts worry the nation will not reach herd immunity. That’s where enough people are immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely.

Experts say the more people who get vaccinated, the fewer people the COVID-19 virus can infect, and eventually, the virus will have nowhere to go and the community will be protected.

Researchers in Louisville, Kentucky, are tracking herd immunity in a unique way through the Co-Immunity Project. The study, led by the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, the Center for Predictive Medicine and the University of Louisville is testing both wastewater and people and combining the data in hopes of answering the question: how immune is this community to COVID-19?

Pieces of the COVID-19 virus come out when you use the bathroom, so researchers can track where the virus exists in the community by sampling wastewater from different neighborhoods.

Then, they’ll take a blood sample and nasal swab from community members across the city. That can show who is vaccinated and who isn’t.

Together, researchers can see which neighborhoods are vaccinated and which have infections, they put those together in hopes of showing if the community is reaching herd immunity or if the virus is still pervasive in the community.

"We're trying to get to a place where enough people are vaccinated, where there will be no place for the virus to go," said Ted Smith, associate professor of environmental medicine at the University of Louisville. "So, we'll call that herd immunity, and the only way we'll know when we're there is when the virus essentially disappears."

Ted Smith and Aruni Bhatnagar are the researchers behind the effort. They are doing all of this to provide their community with the data to create a better public health response to this crisis and future crises.

Their data can show where in the city people aren’t getting shots. Then, they can work with local leaders to get those communities better access and education around vaccines.

"Health is not an individual entity, but a community activity, and if a community is unhealthy, we cannot be healthy," said Aruni Bhatnagar, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville.

They hope their data will help with more than just finding the communities who are vaccine hesitant.

"It's been a constant challenge and a nightmare," said Louisville restaurant owner Chad Cooley.

Cooley owns Momma’s BBQ and says the closer Louisville gets to herd immunity, the sooner more people can get back to enjoying moments of normalcy, like coming out to eat.

"Smart people are getting vaccinated, and some others are still waiting to join us," said Cooley. "But, hopefully, we'll get there. Hopefully, we'll get there soon because we have the shots there available. People just need to go get them."

"We're trying to help our community by using good science," said Joshua Fuqua, a University of Louisville assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

Because information, even from a stinky source, can bring the sweet reward of togetherness we’re all craving.

"We are in the end game, and if any if anybody gets left out, we're not going to win this game," said Bhatnagar.