Pilot program to test wastewater for COVID pleases health officials

Pilot program to test wastewater for COVID pleases health officials

It’s part of an effort being undertaken in many parts of the country. “Research has shown that humans excrete the virus that causes COVID-19 in their stool,” Erie County deputy health commissioner Joseph Fiegl said. “Wastewater can be tested to gather information on the population of individuals using that sewer system.”

Community outreach programs may result in only a fraction of the populace being tested for COVID, and the vast majority of those who contract it show no symptoms, and would therefore be unlikely to subject themselves to testing. While you couldn’t track down an individual with COVID through these means, it is possible, according to researchers, to learn of outbreaks in certain geographic areas served by a specific sewer district, and to find out much faster than waiting for diagnosed cases or hospitalizations to spike. 

For several months the county health department has teamed with University at Buffalo scientists to test wastewater at sewer plants throughout the county. According to those involved in the pilot program, their sampling data has largely mirrored the past incidents of COVID locally.

Once they do, the connection is established between COVID and wastewater. However, when it come to testing wastewater, Erie County health commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein noted, “Everyone uses the bathroom at least once, and hopefully flushes the toilet.” 

“We’ve not heard that the state is gong to use the results of wastewater testing to declare an area as a high prevalence area,” she said. While she used the term “community surveillance” to describe the effort, Dr. Burstein does not believe the state would used data gathered through such means to order an area to be locked down.  

“Certainly, if someone lives in one area, and then they go to work in another area and go to the bathroom there, well … then that changes the signal,” said Ian Bradley, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Buffalo, which helped spearhead the pilot program. However, Dr. Burstein said if an area “lights up,” it would give public health officials a chance to more quickly respond with resources, such as pop-up testing clinics and other resources to stay ahead of a potential outbreak. There are practical reasons as well, such as where someone goes to the bathroom.

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