SALT LAKE CITY — Utah scientists say sewage could provide a tool for ongoing monitoring and early detection of the novel coronavirus in communities after they found high concentrations of the the virus in areas with outbreaks.

The information could be useful for state officials as infection numbers keep climbing, with another 325 positive cases confirmed Friday and eight more deaths in the Beehive State. The Utah Department of Health says the state now has 13,577 COVID-19 cases from 258,786 tests conducted

Researchers hoped to discover whether waste that gets flushed down the toilet could help Utah get a more localized picture of infection rates. In March, as part of a pilot study, they began testing samples of untreated wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 gene copies in 10 treatment plants across the Beehive State representing about 40% of Utah’s population.

“The initial results show that we can not only detect the virus in sewage, but we can see trends that are broadly consistent with known infection rates in Utah’s communities,” Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said in a statement.

“Monitoring virus in Utah’s sewage systems offers a tool for early detection of rising infections, monitoring community infection trends and confirmation of low infection rates. We hope that monitoring the sewage can help in prioritizing limited state resources such as mobile testing,” Gaddis said.

The virus in its flushed form is no longer alive, but copies of its genetic material get left behind. Officials say that even those with asymptomatic infections shed the virus in their feces.

Plant operators voluntarily collected samples at the inlets of their sewage treatment plants beginning in mid-April through the end of May. Researchers estimated viral concentration per 100,000 people.

The virus was not found in water leaving sewage treatment plants but in water entering all 10 sewage plants, officials said, with 64% of the 171 collected samples containing it.

In late May, when Cache County reported an outbreak at a Hyrum meat packaging facility that led to a sharp increase in cases, the Logan and Hyrum sewage plants also saw large increases of the virus in water samples.

But highest viral concentrations were detected in larger cities, researchers said, especially tourist communities.

Utah is now “committed to expanding and operationalizing this tool in the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” officials said.

Friday numbers

Utah has recorded 139 deaths with COVID-19, according to health department numbers released Friday, eight more than Thursday. 

Six were Salt Lake County residents:

  • Female, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Male, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Male, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Male, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Male, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Male, between 18-60, hospitalized.

The other two victims were a Weber County woman between 60 and 85 who lived in a long-term care facility; and a Washington County woman between the ages of 18 and 60 who was hospitalized at the time of her death.

Utah Valley University released a statement Friday saying one of its students, 27-year-old Trevor Syphus Lee, was among the state’s recent COVID-19 deaths. Lee, who was not taking classes for the summer, lived in apartments near campus, according to the statement.

“We extend our sincere condolences to Trevor’s loved ones and friends, and we hope they know that they are in our thoughts and hearts,” the university statement said.

Officials reported 4,118 new tests processed and an overall rate of positives of 5.2% of the total tested. 

Twenty more people needed hospitalization for the virus, with 130 people currently in the hospital with COVID-19.

In Utah, 7,935 people are considered recovered from the novel coronavirus after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

Also on Friday, University of Utah Health announced it will train and deploy more than 100 contact tracers to help the state in its fight against the pandemic.

“As we start to open society and get back out there, we are seeing more cases and a lot more contacts — so even while many people may feel that we’re on the downslope of this, the epidemiological work is on the upswing,” said Sharon Talboys, assistant professor of public health and director of the project, in a statement.

“With this program we’re filling a big need and are proud to be part of that effort,” she said.

  The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 6,942; 565 hospitalized; 93 deaths.
  • Utah County, 2,491; 131 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 927; 30 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 739; 56 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
  • Davis County, 628; 53 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Summit County, 444; 40 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 439; 47 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 350; 35 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 342; 15 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 159; 10 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 61; 5 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 28; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 27; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.