LSU officials said Wednesday they plan to use wastewater tests around dormitories and on-campus apartments to pinpoint potential hotspots for the coronavirus before students even show any symptoms.

The work involves studying the sewage of between 350  and 500 students at a time by the College of Engineering and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

"It just tells us one simple thing: How many people are shedding the virus or has the disease," said Environmental Engineering Professor John Pardue.

"We hope to be able to identify places on campus where maybe we have outbreaks that haven't been identified yet and move to snuff those out," Pardue said.

"If it is a building where we don't think there has been any disease and we see elevated numbers then clearly we have some options on things we need to do, to encourage testing," he said.

Thomas Galligan Jr., interim president of LSU, noted that examining wastewater will not allow officials to identify specific individuals carrying the virus.

But if it looks like are positive tests in a single residence hall, for example, the school can alert students and get them tested.

"This innovative project is yet another example of how we're putting the cutting-edge research of LSU faculty into action to help monitor and contain COVID-19, and it will be a great supplement to the many other preventive measures we're taking to ensure our campus is as safe as it possibly can be for our students, faculty and staff," Galligan said in a statement that accompanied the announcement.

Said Pardue, "We pick up (identify) people before they may even be feeling symptoms."

The school reports the number of positive cases of the virus on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Sept. 7-8 snapshot posted Wednesday shows 82 positive cases among students, faculty and staff.

LSU began its fall semester on Aug. 24 with a mixture of online and in-person classes.

The effort by the school follows similar tests at locations around East Baton Rouge Parish to track cases of the virus.

Pardue said by studying wastewater officials noticed a drop in positive cases of the virus after parish officials ordered residents to wear masks in public days before state officials noticed the trend.

"We got an instantaneous picture of what is happening in the city," he said. "The same thing will apply in the dorms and the residence halls."

Louisiana has been among the nation's leaders in coronavirus cases per capita for months.

East Baton Rouge Parish trails only Jefferson Parish in the number of infections.

Formal testing is set to begin next week at about two dozen sites and will initially be done once per week.

Experts will be gauging the amount of genetic material from the virus in a liter of water.

Samples take two days to process.

Results will then be forwarded to campus leaders for action depending on the amount of the virus detected.

Galligan said students who test positive are being quarantined in both hotels and dormitories set aside for that purpose.

He said hotel space has become an issue amid the demand for rooms by those displaced by Hurricane Laura.

Galligan noted that nationally there has been a change in thinking on how to handle positive cases of the virus at colleges, with a shelter-in-place view gaining favor over students returning home to recover.

The work will be done at the GeneLab, a laboratory at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.

The tests are supposed to show ranges of how many students are infected, such as 1-5, 5-10 or even one.

Earlier this year the city-parish paid LSU $150,000 to do research on the parish's sewer system on how the coronavirus was impacting different areas, and whether cases were increasing or decreasing.

However, since the LSU campus is a much more contained area test results can target specific problem spots.

Similar work with wastewater tests has been done elsewhere, including the University of Arizona.

Officials there said they may have prevented a surge of coronavirus cases caused by an individual showing no symptoms in one dormitory, according to the Arizona Daily Star.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.