TEMPE, AZ — Scientists who test wastewater in Tempe believe they have detected a potential hotspot for COVID-19. In April, Tempe began doing what no city in the country did, track COVID-19 thru its sewer water. Then move quickly to protect residents and keep the virus under control. On Wednesday, City Officials began spreading the word in one section of town now considered at risk.
The location is a stretch along Apache Boulevard between Rural and Smith roads, and is home to 8,000 residents. Many of them are college students from ASU, along with low-income families and seniors. The city calls this Area 6. "Area 6 is one of the hardest-hit areas of the city of Tempe with regards to COVID-19," says Vice Mayor Randy Keating.
While state and county health officials are reluctant to offer specific information about potential COVID-19 hotspot locations beyond a zip code, Tempe is telling its residents exactly where a hotspot is or where it might develop. "They are part of the science, they need to know," says Rosa Inchausti Tempe's Director of Strategic Management and Diversity. Inchausti oversees the wastewater monitoring program. "They flush. We take that data and then we give it back to them and tell them exactly what we're doing with that information. how it's impacting their community."
Two years ago, Tempe began testing sewer water in an effort to track opioid abuse. In April, it turned it's attention to COVID-19. "We like to put resources where we know there is an issue and predict where that issue will develop," Keating said. "That helps us concentrate and have resources available in this area of the city where we are seeing infection rates higher than the rest of the city."
Keating and other city officials came to the Tempe Community Action Agency Food Pantry on Apache Boulevard Wednesday to talk to residents and hand out information packets. Community outreach is an important element in Tempe's plan to fight COVID-19 once it detects an area of concern. Many residents in Area 6 will receive masks, children will get stickers, bilingual materials on staying healthy are being provided, businesses are getting signage warning about COVID-19, and local non-profits are helping spread the word at food pantries and among the city's homeless population. Area 6 resident Pam Bejarano believes the city's outreach is working. "They're trying to do what they can. You come here; they give you hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial soap. They've done a pretty good job compared to other places."
With more than 3,000 college students and an average household income of $22,000 a year, Area 6 is home to some of COVID's most vulnerable populations. Tempe is hoping its community outreach will prevent a severe outbreak, which could quickly spread. City Councilwoman Doreen Garlid, who was part of Wednesday's outreach effort said, "we're going to do our best to get people more aware of COVID and what they can do to protect themselves and stay safe."