ILLINOIS (WCIA) — The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) have launched a new website tracking the COVID-19 levels in wastewater throughout the state.

DPI, part of the University of Illinois System, said this new interactive online tool provides more Illinois-specific data in easy-to-understand charts, building on the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker statistics.

“This data is now going to be available to researchers and the public alike, giving everyone as accurate picture as possible for the pandemic,” said Bill Jackson, executive director of DPI. “This is a game-changer in terms of transparency and public health awareness, and we applaud IDPH for partnering with us on this bold step.”

Site visitors can view an interactive map or search by city or county for up-to-date figures and trendlines. The data comes from any one of 75 wastewater treatment plants in Illinois, including Urbana, Decatur, and Danville, that voluntarily collect samples of raw sewage to be screened for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Beginning the wastewater surveillance effort in 2020, samples are collected twice a week and taken to a University of Illinois Chicago lab for analysis and then to Argonne National Laboratory for genetic sequencing to identify virus variants. Genetic material from viruses and other germs is excreted in the feces and urine of infected people, eventually showing up in the raw sewage piped into purification facilities.

DPI said monitoring the wastewater has been proven to be an accurate and cost-effective way to measure COVID-19’s presence in a community. DPI also stated that public health authorities are increasingly relying on wastewater tallies now that people generally have switched to doing at-home COVID-19 testing and are not reporting results.

“Wastewater surveillance is a great tool that can help detect and monitor COVID-19, the flu, and other pathogens,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, IDPH director. “This new website is designed to inform and educate residents of Illinois and will give them the ability to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves.”

DPI and Shield T3, a for-profit startup created at the University of Illinois, are conducting a pilot program to test wastewater for COVID-19 at Illinois public schools.

The DPI team recently began screening sewage samples for influenza A and B for IDPH, and they said they plan to share these results as soon as possible.