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Omicron finally declining in the Twin Cities? The sewage says so.

After weeks tracking a sharp rise of COVID in our wastewater, the Met Council has some encouraging news about a potential peak.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Emerging data on the omicron variant in the Twin Cities has some researchers optimistic that we've hit our peak.

The source? Our sewage.

Since early in the pandemic, the Metropolitan Council's metro wastewater plant, has monitored the sewage of nearly two million Minnesotans in the Twin Cities, to measure levels of viral COVID RNA.

The wastewater sampling helped the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health track the emergence of the delta variant more than a week before it showed up in testing last summer. In recent weeks, the Met Council has also used the sewage data to chart the striking rise of the omicron variant, while also making the information publicly available online.

"Within a few weeks, 95% of the viral RNA we were collecting was omicron," said Steven Balogh, research scientist at the metro wastewater plant. "It was a real shock to me, and I think to most people looking at this, how fast it went."

But in the last week, Balogh was surprised again, in a good way. The amount of viral COVID RNA detected in metro wastewater suddenly began to drop.

"It's been a very steep decrease, so it's not just like kind of going down," Balogh said. "It's going down rapidly."

But he says that doesn't mean COVID is on the run for good.

"It's kind of too early to say just what that drop means," Balogh said. "We've seen it so many times go down and then turn around and go back up. Especially with delta, we were seeing a lot of ups and downs, so I wouldn't say that we're out of the woods. What I would say is that, at the moment, it looks very good that the wastewater signal is going down."

But Balogh says, even with the big drop, the viral RNA in sewage right now is still at a troubling level.

"Within the past couple weeks, we've seen the highest levels that we've seen at any time in the pandemic," he said. "It's been about three times higher than we had seen previously, so we've got a long way to go."

But at a time when testing data is delayed, and at home options make case numbers more unreliable, he says it's reassuring that we still have a reliable way to understand what's happening beneath the surface.

"It's an objective measure of what's going on in the community," Balogh said. "It's comprehensive. It includes everybody."

The University of Minnesota is tracking wastewater across the entire state, and researchers there say not all communities saw a drop in wastewater COVID levels last week. They hope to have more information on statewide trends on Thursday. 

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