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How scientists are testing for Covid in the bowels of Erie County

How scientists are testing for Covid in the bowels of Erie County

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Wastewater Treatment Facility

The Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Blasdell collects wastewater samples that are taken to UB to be tested for Covid, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Sanitary Chemist Jack Dolina is at the bioclarifiers, which are the first of several steps in treating the water. In these pools, the sludge sinks to the bottom and the scum and floatables is skimmed off the top.

Since the fall, scientists have been analyzing samples of wastewater taken from sewage treatment plants around Erie County to look for the fragments of the virus that causes Covid-19.

And the latest scoop on the poop is great news: For the first time since the testing began, the level of virus fragments is so low that, in many cases, it's virtually undetectable.

"It's still there but in such lower amounts that we can't find it," said Dr. Ian Bradley, assistant professor at the University at Buffalo's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering.

The Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Blasdell is collecting sewage samples that are going to UB to test for the coronavirus.

In September, the Erie County Health Department began working with UB engineers and the Town of Amherst, the Buffalo Sewer Authority and the Town of Tonawanda on the sewage testing program. Twice a week, samples of wastewater from 10 treatment facilities are collected and analyzed. The samples are tested using essentially the same technology as the PCR nasal swab testing method used on individuals.

The low levels in the sewer water seen lately mirror what public health officials have been seeing locally, statewide and nationwide as the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 and people hospitalized and dying from the virus have been plummeting.

Wastewater Treatment Facility

The Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Blasdell collects wastewater samples that are taken to UB to be tested for Covid, Thursday, June 10, 2021. The compositor collects samples over a 24-hour period. They then take a portion of that and put it into a sterile bottle which goes to UB for testing.

So what's the point of testing the sewer water, too?

It comes down to the fact of life that, well, everybody has to use the bathroom and if you've got Covid-19, it's going to show up in your waste, according to a new addition to the Erie County Health Department's website on Covid that explains the wastewater project.

All of that waste flows from toilets into the sewer system and eventually to a wastewater treatment plant where the samples are taken.

While there's no way to pinpoint which household or businesses in which the infections originated, detection of the virus in those samples gives public health officials an indication of when outbreaks are happening and general area of where they're happening. That's according to Deputy Commissioner Joseph Fiegl of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, Division of Sewerage Management who was part of a video news conference updating the public about the wastewater testing.

"This is an emerging area of research," Fiegl said. "We're excited about some of the possibilities."

Wastewater Treatment Facility

The Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Blasdell collects wastewater samples that are taken to UB to be tested for Covid, Thursday, June 10, 2021. The compositor collects samples over a 24-hour period. They then take a portion of that and put it into a sterile bottle which goes to UB for testing. These are samples from three different district in Erie County that will go to UB. 

Covid testing of wastewater is underway by public health departments around the country and in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced plans for a National Wastewater Surveillance System.

The main advantage of testing wastewater is that it's taking samples from the community as a whole, and it's done so anonymously.

"We know not everybody gets a Covid-19 test that needs a Covid-19 test," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

Research also indicates that the virus fragments are shed even before symptoms appear, which can give health officials a heads up on an emerging outbreak.

In addition, as more and more of the population gets vaccinated against Covid-19, fewer people are getting tested and data collected on positive cases may not give an accurate picture of what's going on. During the week that ended May 1, 49,000 Covid tests were administered in Erie County, Burstein said. The week ending June 5, that number was down to 29,000.

"We still need to be on the lookout," she said.

The wastewater testing may also be helpful in identifying a Covid variant that vaccines aren't as effective on.

"Then our cases may start to increase. This would be the canary in the coal mine," Burstein said.

The county is working with UB to see if there's a way to test for the variants in the samples, she said.

"We're optimistic that we can do it in the near future," she said.

Maki Becker

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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