"Wastewater-Based Epidemiology for COVID-19: Handling qPCR Nondetects and Comparing Spatially Granular Wastewater and Clinical Data Trends"
ABSTRACT: Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is a useful complement to clinical testing for managing COVID-19. While community-scale wastewater and clinical data frequently correlate, less is known about subcommunity relationships between the two data types. Moreover, nondetects in qPCR wastewater data are typically handled through methods known to bias results, overlooking perhaps better alternatives. We address these knowledge gaps using data collected from September 2020–June 2021 in Davis, California (USA). We hypothesize that coupling the expectation maximization (EM) algorithm with the Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) method could improve estimation of “missing” values in wastewater qPCR data. We test this hypothesis by applying EM-MCMC to city wastewater treatment plant data and comparing output to more conventional nondetect handling methods. Dissimilarities in results (i) underscore the importance of specifying nondetect handling method in reporting and (ii) suggest that using EM-MCMC may yield better agreement between community-scale clinical and wastewater data. We also present a novel framework for spatially aligning clinical data with wastewater data collected upstream of a treatment plant (i.e., distributed across a sewershed). Applying the framework to data from Davis reveals reasonable agreement between wastewater and clinical data at highly granular spatial scales─further underscoring the public-health value of WBE.