2024 article

Estimating Rates of Change to Interpret Quantitative Wastewater Surveillance of Disease Trends

Holcomb, D. A., Christensen, A., Hoffman, K., Lee, A., Blackwood, A. D., Clerkin, T., … Engel, L. S. (2024, April 25).

Source: ORCID
Added: May 1, 2024

Background: Wastewater monitoring data can be used to estimate disease trends to inform public health responses. One commonly estimated metric is the rate of change in pathogen quantity, which typically correlates with clinical surveillance in retrospective analyses. However, the accuracy of rate of change estimation approaches has not previously been evaluated. Objectives: We assessed the performance of approaches for estimating rates of change in wastewater pathogen loads by generating synthetic wastewater time series data for which rates of change were known. Each approach was also evaluated on real-world data. Methods: Smooth trends and their first derivatives were jointly sampled from Gaussian processes (GP) and independent errors were added to generate synthetic viral load measurements; the range hyperparameter and error variance were varied to produce nine simulation scenarios representing different potential disease patterns. The directions and magnitudes of the rate of change estimates from four estimation approaches (two established and two developed in this work) were compared to the GP first derivative to evaluate classification and quantitative accuracy. Each approach was also implemented for public SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring data collected January 2021 - May 2024 at 25 sites in North Carolina, USA. Results: All four approaches inconsistently identified the correct direction of the trend given by the sign of the GP first derivative. Across all nine simulated disease patterns, between a quarter and a half of all estimates indicated the wrong trend direction, regardless of estimation approach. The proportion of trends classified as plateaus (statistically indistinguishable from zero) for the North Carolina SARS-CoV-2 data varied considerably by estimation method but not by site. Discussion: Our results suggest that wastewater measurements alone might not provide sufficient data to reliably track disease trends in real-time. Instead, wastewater viral loads could be combined with additional public health surveillance data to improve predictions of other outcomes.