CDC Names Houston Department of Health, Rice a Center of Excellence in Wastewater Epidemiology | Rice News | News and Media Relations

By SHAWN HUTCHINS
Special on rice news

A system to track COVID-19 in Houston sewage has become the basis of an epidemiology center that has now won special designation from the US government and $1 million in its first year of federal funding. .

Rice research technician Russell Carlson-Stadler analyzes sewage samples for signs of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Photo by Brandon Martin

The Houston Department of Health, in partnership with Houston Public Works and Rice University, received one of two grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to operate a National System Center of Excellence wastewater monitoring. The designation announced by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on August 3 follows the partnership’s successful development and implementation of a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring system for Houston.

The center, dubbed Houston Wastewater Epidemiology, provide training in wastewater epidemiology to other state and local health departments as well as research on the development of statistical tools and metrics to improve surveillance interpretation. It will also expand wastewater monitoring for new diseases. The other winner is the Colorado State Department of Health.

“I want to take this time to commend the Houston Department of Health for their great work in conjunction with Houston Public Works and Rice University,” Turner said at a news conference. “(The grant) puts the department center stage as the CDC develops standard methods for this public health tool.”

“This award illustrates the value of strong partnerships between universities and the communities they serve,” said Rice President Reginald DesRoches. “Working together, experts from Rice University, the Houston Department of Health, and Houston Public Works have discovered that sewage-based epidemiology is a powerful approach to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. . This knowledge can now be standardized, shared with other communities and used as a global public health tool.

Katherine Ensor, professor of rice statistics, speaks to the media at Houston City Hall during the announcement that the city's health and public works departments and the university have been designated a center of Excellence of the National Wastewater Surveillance System by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  From left, Loren Hopkins, professor of practical statistics and director of environmental sciences for the Houston Department of Health;  Enseur;  Dr. David Persse, the town's chief medical officer;  and Stephen Williams, director of the Houston Department of Health.

The partnership between the Rice and the city began in early 2020. It was supported by funding from Rice, the Houston Health Department, the National Science Foundation, the CDC Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the CDC.

Rice’s own efforts were launched in April 2020 by a grant from the COVID-19 Research Fund.

The project’s leaders are Loren Hopkins, environmental science manager for the Houston Department of Health and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice; Katherine Ensor, Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics, and Lauren Stadler, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock, a Rice alumnus, also played a vital role in the success of the program.

Rice News reported in September 2020 on the team’s success in establishing one of the nation’s first sewage early detection programs.

“We were there early, and we had the most intensive statistical system that uses spatial sampling, as well as temporal sampling, to quantify and assess trends in viral prevalence,” Ensor said. “It really shines because the Houston Health Department is acting on the information.”

“After 2.5 years of dedication to this initiative, wastewater analysis has become the leading indicator of COVID-19 trends,” Hopkins added. “This has become increasingly important in recent months partly due to the increase in home testing, which is largely unreported.”

Catherine Ensor
Catherine Ensor
Lauren Stadler
Lauren Stadler
Loren Hopkins
Loren Hopkins

Hopkins’ joint affiliation with Rice and the city has been pivotal in applied research, translating advances in science, engineering, and higher education. In March 2022, she was appointed to the National Academies Committee on Community-based Wastewater Disease Surveillance. His leadership has ensured that the program directly benefits Houston residents.

“The center will help us share our expertise with states and municipalities across the country and as the CDC develops guidance for this new public health tool,” said Stadler, who is also working to establish protocols to search for other diseases including influenza and monkeypox in sewage. .

“We now have the technology and the ability to determine monkeypox levels in the city of Houston through the sewer system, just like we did for COVID,” Turner said.

Stadler’s lab and the Houston Health Department lab provide weekly measurements from 39 city-owned wastewater treatment plants that serve more than 2 million people. These 39 weekly measurements form the basis of the real-time monitoring system. In addition to these measurements, samples are taken from lift stations around the city, including schools, nursing homes and prisons. In total, approximately 100 locations are sampled each week.

Fares El-Dahdah
Fares El-Dahdah
Rebecca Schneider
Rebecca Schneider
Todd Treang
Todd Treang

Versions of these early tools to consistently analyze and track infection dynamics in near real-time are still in use today.

Ensor led the analysis team with help from Rice Statistics students and faculty. As of January 2021, the weekly analysis is conducted by Rebecca Schneider of the Houston Department of Health, an alumnus of the university’s Professional Masters in Statistics program. Ensor and Schneider make sure the system works as expected and do additional research to understand emerging issues.

A key piece of information provided by sewage epidemiology concerns the variants of COVID-19 that are emerging in Houston. Todd Treangen, assistant professor of computer science at Rice, and Stadler developed and maintained a weekly variant analysis. Viral genomes from wastewater samples are sequenced weekly to screen for variants of concern.

The Space Studies Laboratory, directed by Farès El-Dahdah, is responsible for the public dashboard which provides a weekly update.

“This has become a bold move for the City of Houston and for Rice,” Ensor said. “This is a perfect example of a successful city-university partnership built from collaborative research and the application of results for the direct benefit of people and our communities.

Mike Williams contributed to this report.