From water regulations to COVID-19 surveillance in wastewater, Jessica Klutts does it all.
Klutts is an environmental program analyst within the Water Quality Standards Unit of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources's Water Protection Program.
That role has incorporated a multitude of duties, from researching water quality standards to being an instrumental part of Missouri's COVID-19 monitoring efforts.
"In the beginning, it was just nice to have something to contribute in the pandemic, especially when nobody even knew what was going on and how to help when we were all stuck at home," she said. "So to be able to work on the project has been a very interesting and cool way to just kind of contribute to epidemiology in the state and to help mitigate the pandemic in the state."
Generally, Klutts coordinates with wastewater operators to get them trained in collecting samples and ensure the process runs smoothly. She also distributes supplies to the operators and monitors if they are collecting samples correctly and on time.
Prior to the pandemic, Klutts was consumed with working on the water quality standards laid out in state statutes and researching site-specific criteria.
She said at the beginning of the pandemic, DNR began reviewing European studies that tracked the prevalence and distribution of COVID-19 cases in an area through wastewater testing.
"They have done some statistical analysis and shown that we can see an increase in the viral load in the wastewater about five to seven days before there's an increase in cases, and that happens about 70 percent of the time," Klutts said.
The research has become more prevalent in the United States with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developing a program to support state wastewater testing and provide guidance on best methods, but Missouri was one of the first states to implement a program.
After consulting with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, a wastewater testing project was established in Missouri around March 2020.
The COVID-19 Sewershed Surveillance Project — a collaboration between DNR, the University of Missouri and DHSS — monitors the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater facilities throughout the state.
MU agreed to conduct the sample testing, while DHSS has a team undertaking the epidemiology research and communicating data results.
The collaboration doesn't stop there, Klutts said, as she often coordinates with city wastewater treatment facilities and additional state agencies.
The group started with a pilot project in a couple communities to determine how testing could be implemented and what kind of results it could produce.
By July 2020, the project was expanded to a handful of communities around the state, including Jefferson City.
Currently, the program has more than 100 sites in 86 communities and 36 state-owned congregate facilities, such as the Missouri Department of Corrections, veterans homes and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Columbia, Fulton and Rolla also test wastewater.
"It was pretty cool that we were one of the first and now we're one of the biggest," Klutts said. "Most states usually test a handful in maybe a large city in their state but to have the distribution we do is pretty unique."
Most city plants have their own samplers, which made it convenient for the project to rely on the existing infrastructure, she said.
State-owned facilities, however, usually don't have samplers, so she led the effort to find portable samplers to use at those sites and train staff on how to use them.
Wastewater testing often indicates the presence of COVID-19 before people begin displaying symptoms or if they are asymptomatic.
Klutts said the best part of the project is proving the usefulness of the results. She points to DOC as a success story.
"They now use this data and have used the data, especially when cases were spiking, to kind of detect outbreaks in their facilities," Klutts said. "Before, they were kind of just testing everyone they could and that cost a lot of money and a lot of time, so they've really used our data to kind of narrow down their targeted testing."
She said it's been rewarding to be able to help individuals in the state's care through her work with wastewater testing, as well as extending that opportunity to wastewater operators around the state.
"This is a super collaborative project with the best intentions, which has been great," she said. "It's just a huge team of people who just want to help and contribute in some way to helping with COVID, which is pretty cool. I don't think you get that with a lot of state projects."
Klutts said the project has recently received grant money to study what factors are influencing results. DNR will be collaborating with MU and DHSS to conduct those studies as well.