A new website launched by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) on Jan. 10 enables state residents to see coronavirus levels in their own communities.

IDPH, in collaboration with the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), created an interactive online tool that tracks the levels of COVID-19 in wastewater samples across Illinois.

According to the press release, the new tech builds on the statistics posted on the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker website and provides more Illinois-specific data in easy-to-understand charts. On the new site, visitors can search by city or county for up-to-date figures and trendlines.

According to IDPH, samples of raw sewage are voluntarily collected twice a week from 75 wastewater treatment plants around the state. Next, they are taken to a lab at the University of Illinois Chicago for analysis and then to Argonne National Laboratory for genetic sequencing to identify virus variants.

“Wastewater surveillance is a great tool that can help detect and monitor COVID-19, the flu, and other pathogens,” said Sameer Vohra, IDPH director. “This new website is designed to inform and educate residents of Illinois and will give them the ability to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves.”

According to the press release, monitoring wastewater for the coronavirus has been proven to be an accurate and cost-effective way to measure COVID-19’s presence in a community.

Public health authorities increasingly have come to rely on wastewater tallies now that people have switched to doing at-home COVID-19 testing and are not reporting results, IDPH said.

“This data is now going to be available to researchers and the public alike, giving everyone as accurate picture as possible for the pandemic,” said Bill Jackson, executive director of DPI. “This is a game-changer in terms of transparency and public health awareness, and we applaud IDPH for partnering with us on this bold step.”

DPI, which is part of the University of Illinois System, began its wastewater surveillance effort in 2020.

“The vision is to provide online modules for all the different levels of experience and ages — from kindergarteners to seniors — to show the usefulness of the information and bring fun into learning about wastewater research,” said Sandra Gesing, DPI wastewater team lead and senior research scientist.

The DPI team recently began screening sewage samples for the flu to share with IDPH, and the goal is to eventually make these results public on the new dashboard and website.

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