Yuma County is the number one producer of the nation’s winter-time leafy greens – such as romaine lettuce, spinach, and kale – earning the region a nickname, “America’s winter salad bowl.”
While lettuce is the largest winter product, over 175 different crops are grown in the Yuma area year-round, including cotton, lemons, melons, wheat, and dates. According to one University of Arizona study, agriculture contributes $3.2 billion dollars to the Yuma economy annually.
“Early into the coronavirus pandemic, Jesus Tovar of T&P Farms in Somerton, gave a special donation and asked if there was anything we could do to help get Yuma County back to work safely as the vegetable season approached,” said Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA).
“After brainstorming with Vice President and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Shane Burgess, we decided to implement a wastewater-based epidemiology lab in Yuma modelled after the WEST Center in Tucson, and use it to give early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks in the ag workforce; hopefully avoiding what happened in the meatpacking industry.”
Dr. Ian Pepper and his team at the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) Center garnered national media attention this fall when their wastewater testing program served as an early-detection system and helped the university avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in its dormitories.
"Testing the wastewater gives you an idea of the number of cases within a community and whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing," said Pepper, an environmental microbiologist in the UArizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who began testing wastewater samples from across the country at the onset of the pandemic.
“This early-detection system enables us to notify public health officials and a steering committee that can then target resources more effectively for public health action,” said Bradley Schmitz, a lead researcher on the Yuma project. “Essentially, as we can identify which communities are spreading the virus, then public health officials can use this information to focus prevention measures on those areas.”
With government, industry, and donor support, YCEDA’s wastewater-based epidemiology lab launched in November and has already had major success in supporting the health of the Yuma community. Shortly before the Christmas holiday, their wastewater testing at a date packing plant in the county pinged positive, which triggered clinical testing and led to the identification and isolation of five asymptomatic employees—this detection helped reduce potential exposure for the plant’s nearly 200 person workforce.
In January, Governor Doug Ducey announced a $500,000 funding allocation that allowed YCEDA to expand wastewater testing within Yuma County and its four municipalities to further inform public health officials and decision makers’ targeted response plans to potential hotspots within their communities.
“Yuma County is a relatively isolated rural community with four municipalities, so it is a manageable place for a pilot project to assess the utility and effectiveness of this effort,” Brierley said.
Now that schools are back to in-person learning, YCEDA is beginning a pilot project to test an elementary school, a middle school, a high school, and a community college along with municipal wastewater in the same area to learn what WBE testing of schools can tell us.
“Yuma is the now the ‘gold standard’ for how WBE can be implemented effectively with the collaboration between municipalities, public health, and scientists,” Schmitz said. “This is the only example in the nation that in which all of these entities are communicating daily to organize response actions at any given moment in order to avert outbreaks in response to wastewater data, and it is proving to be extremely successful so far.”
To date, outbreaks have been averted at both the date packing facility and the local community college dormitories, and a public alert was issued by Yuma County when one area of the County showed a sudden rise in infection rates after the Superbowl/Valentines/Presidents Day weekend. As concern grows over the effects of new variants spreading rapidly, the YCEDA team is again collaborating with Dr. Pepper of the WEST Center to build the capability for giving an early warning of their arrival and spread.
“We are located on the borders of Mexico and California and have a large migrant labor force, much of which crosses the international border every day. We have two large military installations, and two tribal nations. The municipalities, the hospital, the schools, the ag industry, the military, and others all work very well together as a community to tackle the many issues they share.
“This is a joint effort of many, and a good example of the Ag industry and university working together to provide valuable resources for the community in which they live and work,” Brierley said. “It’s also a great example of how philanthropic giving can be leveraged many times over for the public good.”