Testing Wastewater For COVID, Cities Largely Not Adapting Practice

Posted at 11:01 PM, Dec 25, 2020

LANSING, Mich. — Early on in the pandemic, we told you about cities testing their sewage for early signs of COVID outbreaks. Signs showed up there before people became sick in large numbers. Yet as NEWSY investigative reporter Patrick Terpstra discovered, wastewater testing hasn't become mainstream even though some say it could save lives.

Our sewage could be telling us a whole lot more about the spread of coronavirus, down to the zip code. At the national scale, you can then see where the virus is and where it is not. Cities from New York to LA are analyzing wastewater to detect COVID hotspots, but we found widespread coordinated testing is still a pipe dream.

The country heads into a COVID winter without fully deploying one of the few methods for tracking the virus. David Larsen, an epidemiologist stated that "we’re going to see a huge amount of sadness over the next few months, and it’s not too late to scale up wastewater surveillance at this time to help us with that."

Early on, scientists realized infected people shed COVID in stool. The federal government began a big effort for analyzing concentration of the virus in community wastewater. With potential to help monitor infection rates as more Americans get vaccinated.

Dr. Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for health "It’s something I think from a national level we need to pursue, but so far it’s been up to state and local authorities to launch their own programs, and for some, that’s a challenge.

We learned New York state, for example, suspended its sewage surveillance pilot after a month in part because of an equipment shortage. Testing stopped in four places including Albany and Erie County, home of Buffalo.

“UB is in the process of acquiring enough materials to continue the monitoring effort moving forward.” The University of Buffalo, helping lead the project, tells us they’re “in the process of acquiring enough materials to continue the monitoring effort moving forward.”

With PPE, there’s a global shortage of supplies needed to test sewage for COVID. Other places are struggling with how to pay for it, with coronavirus aid from Washington runs dry. Dave Larsen explains "the biggest factor, the limiting factor, is finances." The result is a patchwork of places analyzing wastewater across the country, mainly big cities and college campuses.

Colleen Naughton from the University of California Merced Civil and Environmental Engineering department "it’s not really a unified strategy unfortunately."

Biobot analytics looks for COVID in wastewater for about 200 cities and counties. "we’re at the beginning, let’s say that."

Newsha Ghaeli, Biobot Analytics President and Cofounder, "there hasn’t really been a strong coming together yet around a specific approach or even standards.

The CDC tells us it’s working on it, still building out a national sewage testing database, not available to the public yet. Colleen Naughton shares "it is, i think, valuable for the public to see that data, and like take action as a deciding factor for what activities and what risks am I going to take?"

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