When you think of all of life’s essentials – water is likely at the top of the list… And when two positive cases of COVID-19 were reported at the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District, long-standing protocols were changed to protect the staff at the two treatment plants to ensure the rest of the staff could continue to do their jobs.
Early on in the pandemic, a staff member of the Snyderville Basin Water Treatment District tested positive for COVID 19. He was asymptomatic and had spent a lot of time with his supervisor, who later also tested positive. The District’s General Manager Mike Luers reported the situation to the Board of Trustees at their meeting Monday night.
Luers tells KPCW because both employees were asymptomatic, they would have never known that the two employees were sick – and the two could have spread the virus even further. Fortunately, one of the employees had personal contact with someone who had travelled out of the country– and that person – who was also asymptomatic – tested positive - when they arrived home.
“As a result of that, we placed the number of employees in quarantine at home for 14 days and thank goodness we haven't had any additional cases here at the district,” Luers said. “As you all know, we do provide an essential service, so we've taken extensive actions to protect our skilled staff in the public. In particular, our advanced water reclamation facilities are staffed with licensed operators we can’t afford to have them come down with COVID-19.”
Both staff members are OK and back to work. Including the two employees who tested positive, Luers says a total of six staff members were quarantined for two weeks.
“It was just a fortunate sequence of events,” he said, “that we were able to determine that we had asymptomatic employees on site and then the people that they had been associated with from a very close contact standpoint of view. I think we sent four employees home for 14 days and we were able to stop the spread of COVID-19 within our group.”
The quarantines didn’t impact the work that needs to be done at the treatment plants…and Luers says it taught them some good lessons. He says they’ve taken some dramatic steps to ensure that if someone should become infected, the spread will be minimal.
“We used to rotate our shifts between the two plants, and we don't do that anymore,” Luers said. “And we require each person to work in isolation at the treatment plant now. Some of our work requires removing heavy motors and equipment and you can't do it as an individual it takes two people - so we've paired work crews up where necessary into two-person crews and they are, so to speak, married to each other for the duration of the pandemic.”
Wastewater is full of contaminants – HIV, hepatitis and now SARS 2. Given the nature of the job, many of those on the front end of treatment he says must be well protected.
“Wastewater contains COVID-19 virus,” he said, “along with many other disease-causing bacteria and viruses. So, we wear N-95 masks, face shields, gloves, Tyvek suits for most of the work that we do and it's just a continuation what we've always done. We have ramped it up a little bit for the guys that are working in the field on cleaning the sewer lines so yes, they do where the PPEs and we've increased the usage of PPEs for the guys that the maintain sewer system.”
But, Luers says, there’s no need to worry that we are passing the virus off to those living downstream. He wants to reassure the public that the district’s two advanced treatment plants can remove the virus using Ultraviolet technology.
“The good news is we can knock out those viruses before that treated wastewater is put back in streams.”
A second issue the district has had to deal with is the fact that there aren’t people in town. With the restaurants and hotels closed down – which are huge water consumers – the wastewater has less ‘stuff’ in it…which Luers says has created a microbiological and chemical challenge.
“We don't have enough wastewater to keep our - the bugs that treat their wastewater – the microscopic bugs - alive so we've had to take dramatic steps in dealing with that situation. Our new treatment plant over here behind Home Depot, we’ve shut half of it down because we don't have enough wastewater - or enough poop - to keep the bugs alive. To have to shut down a half of a treatment plant to keep your bugs alive, is something we've never had to do before.”
Because of the high number of per capital cases of COVID within the district’s boundaries – Luers says the district is now part of a national study.
“University of Utah, BYU, and Baylor University out of Texas have asked us to participate in a number of COVID studies and this is where they take samples of wastewater from the treatment plants and look for the genetic material associated with the SARS COVID 2 virus,” Luers said. “And that's ongoing. We take samples every week and the idea there is can they determine how many people are infected with the SARS virus based on the samples that they collect from wastewater? And those studies are on-going, and we don't have any real set of conclusions yet from those studies.”
General Manager of the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District, Mike Luers.