Two studies will help public health experts understand the virus and inform public.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW) and Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH), the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to conduct two population health studies that will examine the presence of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Together, these studies will provide researchers and public health experts with a better understanding of where COVID-19 has been and help identify communities that may be at risk for a future outbreaks. This research will be a valuable tool for informing future public health practices while maximizing containment efforts.

“One of the most challenging things about COVID-19 is that as a new virus, there is still so much to learn”, said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. “That is why this type of research is essential to our statewide efforts and until there is a vaccine, we must do everything we can to protect our communities and ensure that we are safely reopening the state.”

The first study, Past Antibody COVID-19 Community Survey (PACCS) is led by SHOW and will determine the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies throughout the state. Antibodies indicate if a person has been infected with COVID-19 in the past, even if they did not experience symptoms. Antibody testing helps in understanding how many people were infected with COVID-19; it does not provide information regarding the current amount of positive cases and is not an alternative to diagnostic testing. Study participants will receive antibody testing quarterly over the course of the next year.

“The Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW) will recruit individuals who have participated in SHOW in the past. Past participants are from ten randomly selected counties and the city of Milwaukee. The participants represent a population of residents from across the entire state,” said Kristen Malecki, Director and Principal investigator for the SHOW program, and associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Our past experience surveying the health of this state, existing research infrastructure, and community partnerships should allow us to aid in the containment and tracking effort of the COVID-19 pandemic."

WSLH is collaborating with UWM and the DNR for the second study, Wastewater Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in Wisconsin. This study will test samples from wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) in both populated areas and rural portions of the state in order to determine the current concentration levels of virus genetic material found in the sewage. If the virus is detected or virus quantities are increasing, public health officials can proactively adopt measures to minimize transmission of the virus and prepare for a surge. Conversely, wastewater samples may be able to detect areas with low levels of infection. Surveillance of wastewater will provide public health officials with the opportunity to identify the magnitude of COVID-19 transmission, circulation within a community, and potentially, early warning detection of outbreaks. Results should begin coming in later this summer, as the WSLH begins routine sampling of wastewater. The study will run for a year, through June of 2021.

“Routinely monitoring COVID-19 in wastewater is an effective method to assess community-wide presence and levels of the virus,” said Dr. Jonathan Meiman, Chief Medical Officer for the DHS Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health and Occupational Disease Epidemiologist. “The results will help communities with higher concentrations of COVID-19 prepare for a potential surge in cases. This approach is not designed to replace the existing public health surveillance but will help supplement the current practices and mitigation efforts.”

These two studies, along with Wisconsin’s current widescale testing infrastructure, will help communities reduce the risk of COVID-19.

As the state opens up, DHS remains committed to protecting the health and safety of Wisconsinites by continuing to monitor the presence and track the spread of the virus.