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Understanding COVID-19 Transmissions in Our Communities Through Wastewater Surveillance
Back in the 1990s, as countries around the world contended with a spike in poliovirus cases, many nations turned to wastewater surveillance as an effective method for monitoring and tracking local transmission levels.
Fast forward to 2022, and as the U.S. copes with a spike in COVID-19 cases, most recently the omicron variant, epidemiologist David Larsen and public health experts like Mary B. Collins are once again touting the value of conducting wastewater surveillance to both observe how rampant the virus is in communities, and control the spread of the virus moving forward.
“Wastewater surveillance doesn’t replace other sources of information on the spread of COVID-19; it complements it, and wastewater surveillance provides the strongest correlation yet between active cases and test positivity,” said Larsen, associate professor of public health in the Falk College.
“Wastewater surveillance is an effective way to observe and study what is going on in these communities over time while providing valuable insights into community transmission,” added Collins, associate professor of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Wastewater surveillance helps to build up health security while effectively—and without bias—informing the public of the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Studies have also shown that wastewater surveillance can accurately detect COVID-19 variants such as omicron.
Collins, Larsen and other public health experts outlined the benefits of wastewater surveillance during Wednesday’s webinar, “Introduction to the New York State Wastewater Surveillance Network.”
Back in December, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul ’80 announced that the Department of Health and the Syracuse University public health team, led by Larsen, will expand the University’s groundbreaking method to analyze wastewater for COVID-19 to include at least one wastewater treatment plant in each of the state’s 62 counties. This statewide wastewater surveillance network provides three to five days early warning that COVID-19 cases are increasing or decreasing in a community. Larsen and Collins hope to have the wastewater surveillance network up and running in every county in the state by the end of the month.
Larsen compares wastewater surveillance to a smoke detector. It won’t directly prevent the spread of COVID-19, but by paying attention to the samples drawn from wastewater, these efforts can serve as an early alert for COVID-19, which will in turn help medical and health care systems better prepare for any outbreaks.
“Wastewater surveillance provides a representative sample of the community. Without it, we become reliant on requiring broad geographic shutdowns to prevent the spread of these transmissible diseases. Wastewater surveillance allows us to demonstrate how safe our communities are, and we’ve found out that the trends we observe only gain strength over time,” Larsen said during the webinar.
When COVID is not detected in the wastewater, the risk of COVID in that community is low, and as Larsen says, the community can be thought of as safe based on those results. By observing a lack of COVID-19 in the wastewater, elected and public health officials can also make informed decisions about reengaging in social and economic activities.
“It’s all about understanding what real transmission is like in our community—and even potentially showing there’s no transmission,” Larsen said. “That’s where wastewater surveillance can be so useful.”
Once the data has been collected from the wastewater, it is inputted into a real-time dashboard that is accessible to the public, allowing for an easy-to-read comparison of transmissions, active cases, new cases and test positivity rates in that community and in the surrounding communities.
“One of most exciting aspects of our modeling efforts is viewing the data and the trends through an unbiased model. Our model is separate from trends in COVID tests or politics, and we know we’re providing useful data when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 over time. The data helps guide a community’s response to this pandemic while informing public health officials on what actions to take when they observe either an increase or decrease in cases,” said Collins.
The infrastructure for the wastewater surveillance network has been built over the last few months and will cover approximately 75% of the population in New York City, and 70% of the population outside of New York City.
So far, more than 20 counties across the state have participated in wastewater surveillance, with the evidence from these tests showing the presence of COVID-19 in communities that are home to more than two million New York residents.
While initially the wastewater surveillance network is concentrating on COVID-19 transmissions, both Larsen and Collins pointed out that these practices can also serve as an essential public health resource when it comes to detecting the presence of other infectious diseases, in combatting the opioid crisis and in identifying the next pandemic threat.
The webinar was organized by the Falk College Department of Public Health and the University’s Environmental Finance Center, and co-sponsored by the New York Water Environment Association and New York State Water Resources Institute. It featured a Q&A component in which Larsen, Collins and the other public health experts answered audience questions about the real-time monitoring of wastewater for coronavirus RNA. A recording of the full webinar is available.
Webinar attendees included wastewater treatment plant operators, county and municipal government officials, elected officials, public health officials and members of the general public who were curious about the wastewater surveillance network’s benefits and how it operates.
Visit the New York State Wastewater Surveillance Network website for more information.