Covid-19 testing

Tracking the coronavirus pandemic could soon be a bit easier because of one simple fact: everyone poops.

Around the world , wastewater plants have become unlikely sentinels in the fight against the virus, allowing scientists to track the disease's spread at the community level. The practice of testing sewage samples is spreading across Western U.S. states as well, with programs currently running in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California.

COVID-19 cases are still increasing around the Mountain West, and wait times to get test results are getting longer for many.

This story was powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

Some communities in the Mountain West are again facing testing delays and shortages as the number of COVID-19 cases reach record highs across the country. 

An NPR survey of state health departments shows that the national coronavirus contact tracing workforce has tripled in the past six weeks, from 11,142 workers to 37,110. Yet given their current case counts, only seven states and the District of Columbia are staffed to the level that public health researchers say is needed to contain outbreaks.

Weekend protests drew crowds across the country including in the Mountain West, from hundreds in Boise and Reno to thousands in Denver. Some city leaders now worry such gatherings could lead to new outbreaks of COVID-19.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced Sunday that the city will be offering free tests to demonstrators. 

An aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip at night.
Thomas Hawk / Flickr Creative Commons

Governor Steve Sisolak announced Nevada’s path to phase 2 of reopening, which will begin on Friday, May 29. KUNR’s Stephanie Serrano breaks down the details with News Director Michelle Billman.

Researchers in Utah are in the process of testing about 10,000 people for COVID-19 and antibodies against the virus that causes it.

“People have talked about how we see the tip of the iceberg with the formalized testing that we have,” said Dr. Stephen Alder, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah and one of the project’s leaders. “We're trying to look at, ‘All right, how much of the iceberg is underwater?’ This is a good way to do that.”

Nursing home residents and workers account for about one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the U.S., as The New York Times reported last week. Testing every resident and worker could help slow the spread in nursing homes – but it's expensive.


Coverage of the novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Public health officials are using contact tracing to track and isolate people infected with COVID-19 or those who might have been exposed. This is a routine public health surveillance tool that can be effective for infectious disease control, but the workforce needs to ramp up in order to respond to the coronavirus. In this report, KUNR's Anh Gray and Lucia Starbuck team up to explore the challenges with contact tracing and how the Nevada National Guard will be stepping in to fill some gaps. 

Female scientist producing viral transport media.
Dana Reed/ UNR Med

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

According to health officials, increasing COVID-19 testing capacity is one benchmark needed to gradually reopen Nevada. Early on in the pandemic, shortages of testing kits were an issue for Dr. Mark Pandori who runs the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory. That’s why he reached out to other scientists in the community to help fill the gaps. 

KUNR’s Anh Gray talked to one of them to learn if it’s possible to continue to ramp up production of testing materials.

Health care workers at a Washoe County Health District drive-through testing site.
Bree Zender

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Editor's Note: This story aired before Washoe County Regional Information Center held a virtual press conference on April 24th. Washoe County Health District Kevin Dick provided new information about testing in the community. He says the state has requested the county to target 1,000 COVID-19 tests per day beginning Monday, April 27th. Dick says the county does not have the capacity to reach that target yet since there is currently still a shortage of testing supplies and equipment to process that amount. The district is currently working with the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory and other agencies to increase capacity, and will provide more information on the process next week. 

When will the state’s shutdown be lifted is on the minds of many Nevadans. Governor Steve Sisolak held a press conference earlier this week to update residents.

“Due to the criteria that was developed by the state team and in accordance with White House guidance,” Sisolak said, “as of right now, I can not give you a firm date as to whether we will meet all of this criteria to begin phase one reopening plans.”

As KUNR’s Anh Gray reports, those criteria include meeting health benchmarks, which will require more testing.