The great outdoors is hailed as a recreational safe haven amid the pandemic. But after Mariposa County health officials shipped samples of untreated local wastewater to a Massachusetts lab for analysis, the yielded results show 170 people might have been infected in Yosemite Valley.

But it's still worth noting: health experts and officials agree that getting some fresh, socially distant air outside ranks among the safest, low-risk activities one can do during this global health crisis.

In a well-fleshed report by the Chronicle, it was shown that samples from two wastewater treatment plants serving Yosemite Valley tested positive for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Though the newspaper states that dozens of people are believed to have been infected, results procured by Biobot Analytics, the Cambridge, Massauchests lab that conducted the tests, show it’s possible about 170 people were infected in Yosemite Valley; this figure is based on the virus load present in the collected feces. Exactly how those infections might have been contracted remains unclear.

“We know [the virus] is here," says Eric Sergienko, the county's health officer who is overseeing coronavirus testing in the Yosemite area. "We know the challenge is here. Now we have to be serious about facing it."

Sergeinko notes this news won't likely affect already-in-place policies and both local and state restrictions, but the health officer did add that this finding is likely related to the new influx of park visitors — despite Yosemite capping its capacity at 50 percent.  Also, the park has shuttered all indoor meeting and dining areas; a majority of in-park restrooms and wash stations, too, are closed to mitigate the spread of the disease.

The Chronicle also emphasized that not everybody with the virus passes the pathogen through their stool. On the other hand, others expel it even after they've made a full recovery, which further complicates the findings.

The Associated Press reports no park employees or residents have tested positive at the park’s health clinic, and no visitors have reported being sick since Yosemite began a phased reopening on June 11.

Wastewater and sewage testing, when done in tandem with more traditional swab testing, can help health experts and government officials gain a better sense of how the virus is spreading, as well as its viral density in any single region — including Yosemite.

“[Sewage testing] allows us to do surveillance, knowing we couldn’t test all the visitors to Yosemite or any visitors from other parts of California,” Sergienko added to the Chronicle.

However, take a deep breath: SARS-CoV-2 is effectively "dead" when it passes through the human digestive system, though the viral remnants can still be used to track its spread (and evolution). But still... thoroughly wash your hands for at least twenty seconds after using the loo.

Wastewater monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 is being conducted in the Bay Area, though it's very much "in its infancy."

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Image: Robby McCullough