Nasa Sinnott-Armstrong, a graduate student at Stanford, does not have much experience as a sewage courier—normally, they’re busy studying genetics. But as with many of us, the pandemic is upending routines. Since early March, Sinnott-Armstrong has been making the rounds of the Bay Area’s wastewater treatment plants, collecting samples that may offer clues to Covid-19’s spread around the region.
Sinnott-Armstrong (who uses the pronoun they) does their work with care because: sewage. But also for the protection of the utility workers, who keep the sewers safely swirling while everyone shelters in place. That means wearing protective gear and filling out a medical questionnaire on arrival. In return, they receive a plastic bottle filled with untreated sewage, an extra sample set aside by the workers during routine quality checks. “They seem excited to help,” Sinnott-Armstrong says. “But we’re trying to ask them to do as little extra work as possible, especially right now.”