TEMPE, AZ — Tempe City Officials plan to release real-time data on the spread of COVID-19 in their city. Unlike the State Health Department, which tests less than five percent of the population, Tempe's results will be based on 90 percent.
For the last two years, Tempe has worked with ASU Professor Rolf Halden Ph.D., Director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Biodesign Institute, to track opioid use.
Halden's researchers fan out across the city in what they refer to as a sewer safari, taking samples from the water treatment plant and sewers. The data collected informs city officials and first responders on potential hot spots and offers specific data to drive decisions on how to deal with opioid abuse.
Tempe residents can learn if their neighborhood has a problem by simply logging on to the Tempe website and going to a dedicated dashboard. Halden is now using the same methods to test for COVID-19.
Two months into the COVID data collection, the city is preparing to unveil it's findings Friday if all goes according to plan. Halden says the implications are enormous and go beyond Tempe to include the state and the nation.
"What we have right now is a one size fits all approach," he says. "We treat all of Arizona the same. We have nationwide restrictions. But if you think of the economy, the economy can easily stomach if we shut down one section of America or a city for a while and control an infectious risk. Then we open it up, and another area goes offline."
For a city like Tempe, it means deciding if a school can stay open or if businesses need to close.
"This is what's really exciting about it," says Tempe City Councilman Joel Navarro. "We can track this information and make really sound judgements that our city is still safe, or our city might have to scale back a little bit."
Tempe is one of only three places in the world where sewer testing is used to track disease. The others are located in Australia and the Netherlands. But word is spreading.
The City of Gilbert and the town of Guadalupe began testing their sewer water Monday. Navarro says Maricopa County is anxious to learn what Tempe is discovering about COVID-19. "You are talking about an early warning sign, and you're talking about truly helping guide the state and cities in making decisions, eliminate costs to help the public eradicate an illness. My god, this is a game-changer."
Professor Halden says he has reached out to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is helping lead the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as members of the National Institutes of Health.
He has not heard anything yet. As for Tempe, "I can tell you we can detect the virus at a significantly low enough level that even now we can see the signal from our community and that is a good thing."
Because Halden says when it comes to COVID-19, Tempe is not in the thick of it right now.