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UNLV researchers expand COVID-19 sewage monitoring program amid subvariant's dominance

AP Photo/John Locher, File

FILE - Tanya Flanagan hands back a nose swab to Kenneth Williams after administering herself a COVID-19 test during a preview of a testing site in North Las Vegas, Nev., on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Researchers at University of Nevada, Las Vegas who screen sewage water for COVID-19 have found the BA.2 subvariant across Southern Nevada.

UNLV Medical School Associate Professor Edwin Oh oversees the wastewater research project.

Oh said they have been tracking wastewater for the last two months across Southern Nevada, including in Beatty and Pahrump. “We’re seeing often in the wastewater more than 50% of all these genomes looking like BA.2.

“This is a subvariant that is highly transmissible, and it's actually here. The biggest head scratcher for us is why it's not causing more cases, and why we're not seeing more people in the hospital,” he said. “We're looking for more information moving forward as to whether or not this variant is going to cause more disease, more cases here.”

He said they can use the wastewater results as a baseline, as the virus shows up there before people in that area begin presenting symptoms.

If the variant shows up in Southern Nevada, Oh said they track it until it increases the numbers or goes away.

“Every few months, we think we understand everything about this virus, and then our models have to adapt quickly to what we're observing from the wastewater,” he said.

The program is at a point where they’re deploying it to other countries. “Right now, we're trying to see whether this wastewater system can give us a heads up as to whether a virus might be present in certain situations so that we can try and get ahead.”

Dr. Brian Labus described the virus like a wildfire: “After the fire burns off all the trees, there may be some pockets where you can have things still flare up, but you've burned up a lot of the fuel.”

He said those who are unvaccinated continue to be the likeliest to have a serious illness or death from coronavirus. The virus isn’t quite predictable, as it hasn’t yet taken a seasonal pattern.

“We've seen surges based on changes in behaviors, based on emergence of new variants, and the number of people that are vaccinated, and all those things are kind of varying over time,” Labus said.

As for how new strains arrive in Las Vegas, Labus addresses many looking to tourism, saying if someone is sick in another part of the world, that strain will start to show up “everywhere else pretty quickly.”

“With every other disease we've dealt with in Southern Nevada, if that were the case where tourists were driving it, we would have some of the weirdest diseases and the worst diseases in the world,” he said.

If you’ve been struggling to separate normal seasonal allergies and a possible COVID-19 infection, Labus says the one symptom that does not overlap is fever. “But really, that’s why we have the test.”

For more information on the wastewater program, click here.

Edwin Oh, associate professor, UNLV School of Medicine;  Brian Labus, epidemiologist, assistant professor, UNLV School of Public Health

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.