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Wastewater investigators: COVID levels in Houston are high. Take care. (Opinion)

Houston is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 levels, the seventh wave of coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. Houston Wastewater EpidemiologyThe COVID-19 monitoring program we helped establish during the pandemic outbreak has detected a dramatic increase in the level of the virus within our community.

It is important for everyone to take steps to protect themselves, such as getting vaccinated and getting boosters, wearing a mask in indoor public places, and practicing social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over six months of age receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine.

Virus levels in wastewater are a strong predictor of cases in our community, and are something everyday people can (and should) follow to assess the risks to themselves and their loved ones.

Levels across the city have increased since mid-June. This week, we see signs of stabilization in some parts of the city. However, in our experience, we are at the peak of the current wave and infection levels in some parts of the city will continue to rise over the coming weeks. Based on the past history of the virus, we know that it may take more than a month to return to baseline levels citywide.

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“Viruses evolve naturally,” says David Persse, medical director for the city of Houston, “and certain viruses mutate much more quickly. The flu virus, for example, mutates every year. That’s why we recommend people get vaccinated annually. But with COVID-19, the mutation rate is almost every six months, and some strains mutate even faster.”

That’s why it’s important to get the up-to-date vaccine and take other familiar precautions, like wearing a mask indoors and social distancing. You should also get tested if you have symptoms and stay home if you are sick. Among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems.

You can also help by staying informed about the latest COVID-19 trends in Houston. On our website (https://hou-wastewater-epi.org), you can find a panelUpdated weekly, showing the latest levels of coronavirus detected in wastewater at locations in Houston and surrounding communities.

While you are on our website, we also recommend that you register to receive the new Wastewater Alert Program from the Houston Health Department. This program will send you urgent text messages or emails about the viral levels of COVID-19, influenza, and RSV detected at 48 participating school campuses.

Wastewater epidemiology is a valuable tool for tracking COVID-19 and other viruses. By collecting and analyzing wastewater samples, epidemiologists can study the presence of viruses and pathogens and monitor the rise and fall of infection rates in different locations. This information helps public health officials stay ahead.

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“We have learned many lessons since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” says Stephen L. Williams, director of the Houston Health Department. “The dynamics of infections and hospital admissions have changed from one variant to another, and as people have been vaccinated or acquired immunity, the wastewater monitoring and reporting system has served as a kind of radar.”

Houston was one of the first cities in the world to implement large-scale wastewater monitoring: in March 2020, early in the first wave of COVID, Houston Wastewater Epidemiology began as a collaboration between the Houston Health Department, Works Houston Public Schools and Rice University. Since then, we have remained at the forefront of scientific advancesand in advancing science to help our city and communities.

We are proud of the system we have built. And we hope you use it to make good decisions for yourself and your loved ones.

Loren Hopkins, Lauren Stadler and Katherine B. Ensor are the executive team of Houston Wastewater Epidemiology. Hopkins is director of environmental sciences for Children’s and Community Environmental Health at the Houston Health Department. Stadler is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. Ensor is the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics at Rice University.

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