One Stinky Solution To Hurting Tourism Economies

May 15, 2020

Cody has anxiously been waiting for Yellowstone National Park to open up since its economy depends on summer tourism. Mayor Matt Hall said the community is willing to try new ideas.

"We would kind of have to take probably a little bit of a risk to open I mean, until there's a vaccine and stuff. That's the only sure thing," said Hall. "The virus is probably going to be a way of life for quite a while until then. So I think people are... ready."

Yellowstone National Park announced it will open the south and east gates, and Grand Teton National Park will open on Monday, May 18, with limited access. Hall said Cody has been preparing for this moment. Restaurants, law enforcement and public health officials are all working together to prepare for any potential medical surge. He said this includes hiring extra people for contact tracing.

"So when we probably get some virus that shows up, we can try and do our best to contain it to see who's interacted with those people or whoever has it," said Hall. "And really try and do everything you can proactively to keep it from spreading."

Hall and other public officials are aware that an influx of people coming through the community will probably increase the presence of coronavirus. So in order to try to create a balance, they are surveilling one more thing.

"You can measure the concentration of the virus that's present in the wastewater," said University of Notre Dame Environmental Engineering Professor Kyle Biby. "And you have some data on how much virus an infected individual excretes, you can then maybe estimate how many people are excluding that virus."

Epidemiologists realized they could probably detect the virus in human waste and determine whether an entire community sees a spike in cases. But this is not a new idea.

"There's been surveillance type efforts for viruses, most notably polio virus, for four decades," said Biby.

After you go to the bathroom and flush the toilet, human waste travels through the plumbing system of your community and eventually ends up at the wastewater treatment plant.

This is when a city wastewater operator can test whether the wastewater has the virus in it.

The operator opens an access hatch and pours some of the waste water into a bucket. Then a long stick is placed in the bucket which collects the sample.

Phillip Bowman, Cody's public works director, said the city is collecting samples like this every hour for one day. And then that gets sent to the lab.

"That collection, over a 24 hour period, is viewed to be representative of what the community waste stream is over a one-day period.," said Bowman.

Jackson is also testing its community's poop. Both Cody and Jackson are sending test samples to the BioBot company. It's a spin-off of a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was initially testing wastewater. The tests typically cost $120, but both cities have gotten word that it will be increased to $1,200.

Mayor Matt Hall said the community is still going to go forward with the test, but Jackson is unsure whether they can since the cost is so inhibiting. So far Jackson has gotten two results back.

Dr. Travis Riddelll, Teton County health officer, said the results, if done in regular intervals, can give you a baseline of presence of the virus in the community.

"The idea is that if you're seeing increased amounts of the virus in your wastewater, it's maybe an early indication that there are increasing cases in the community," said Riddell.

About 330 wastewater facilities in 40 states are using this method. But it's especially helpful for these gateway communities because of the impending influx of tourists. But Riddell and other gateway community health officers said the data from the wastewater can't be the only data point they use to take any action. It's more of a baseline to compare and contrast.

"If we saw a clear trend of decreasing viral copies in the wastewater, and then suddenly we saw that trend reverse and the number spike up again, that would be an indicator that it would be a good idea to take some sort of action," said Riddell.

Riddell said so far the results look promising, but he wants more data points before he puts any real value in it. And that's the plan. Jackson is testing its wastewater every week. This is why Riddell wants to make sure that Jackson can continue the testing. He said the town and Teton County are looking at different ways they could cover the cost or different labs they could use for the testing.

While Cody hasn't gotten its first test results back yet, Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin, said the plan is to test at regular intervals as well.

"If it comes back and says there are five people in your community shed virus at your baseline. We know where we start. But once the park opens and the hotels fill up, if we now have 150 people shedding virus, then we know we have a problem," said Billin.

Even though the three Montana Yellowstone gates haven't opened yet, those gateway communities are also planning or already testing its wastewater system.

"We're dependent on tourism," said Billin. "It's our part to help the park manage the return of tourists."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.