Higher incidence of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in areas with combined sewer systems, heavy precipitation, and high percentages of impervious surfaces

Michelle L. Bell and 2 other contributors

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    Combined sewer systems (CSS) are water management systems that collect and transport stormwater and sewer water in the same pipes. During large storm events, stormwater runoff may exceed the capacity of the system and lead to combined sewer overflows (CSOs), where untreated sewer and stormwater are released into the environment. Though current literature reveals inconclusive evidence regarding the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, detection of infectious SARS-CoV-2 in urine and feces of COVID-19 patients led to concerns that areas contaminated by CSOs may be a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 and may result in illness after the ingestion and/or inhalation of contaminated splashes, droplets, or aerosols. We investigated the association between COVID-19 incidence and CSSs and whether this association differed by precipitation and percent impervious surfaces as a proxy for possible CSOs. We fitted a quasi-Poisson regression model to estimate the change in percentage of incidence rate of COVID-19 cases in counties with a CSS compared to those without, adjusting for potential confounders (i.e., state, population density, date of first documented COVID-19 case, social vulnerability, and percent vaccinated) and including interaction variables between CSS, precipitation, and impervious surfaces. Our findings suggest that heavy precipitation in combination with high percentages of imperviousness is associated with higher incidences of COVID-19 cases in counties with a CSS compared to in counties without (p-value = 2.5e-9). For example, CSS-counties with precipitation of 10 in/month may observe a higher incidence in COVID-19 cases compared to non-CSS counties if their impervious surfaces exceed 33.5% [95%CI: 23.0%, 60.0%]. We theorize that more COVID-19 cases may be seen in counties with a CSS, heavy precipitation, and high percentages of impervious surfaces because of the possible increase in frequency and severity of CSOs. The results suggest links between climate change, urbanization, and COVID-19.