Erie County using sewers to detect COVID-19 spread in community

Unveil website that has tracked COVID-19 spread
Testing sewage water
Photo credit Erie County

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – Erie County has traditionally tested residents for COVID-19 by inserting a nasal swab and giving them their results in the coming days.

But since September, they’ve also been using another method to track community spread: Sewers.

Because COVID-19 can be detected in stool, county officials have tested samples in the sewer system to see how much transmission there is in the community. County officials on Thursday unveiled a website which shows the data they’ve compiled in different communities.

“It’s almost more useful and more important now because cases are low,” Ian Bradley, a professor at the University at Buffalo and environmental engineer, said. “If we have an outbreak, for example, in Lackawanna, we can detect that in the wastewater. We’d see pieces of the virus in the wastewater and maybe know there is transmission going on in the unvaccinated population.”

While it is not a perfect science since there may be some people who use the toilet at home and others at work, officials hope that by testing sewage, they’ll be another step ahead of the virus should another variant pop up in the community.

“We know that not everybody gets a COVID-19 test who needs to get a COVID-19 test,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said. “We know that with the warmer weather and increased vaccination rates, there are less people that develop symptomatic COVID-19…With the lower number of testing, we may not have a good picture of especially asymptomatic COVID-19 infection in the community.”

The county said the data collected in the project can provide relative trends but cannot reliably equate the data to an exact number of people or rates of prevalence in the sewershed that are infected.

Recent data through the county dashboard shows there is little spread in Erie County, which correlates with the traditional PCR testing reported statewide. Still, county officials are hopeful that with additional resources, they’ll be able to continue using the sewer system to detect another virus like hepatitis A and opioids.

More than 99.5% of New Yorkers have tested negative for COVID-19 in the last week.