Those who do their business in New Paltz are now also probably participating in a program for monitoring poop. Specifically, wastewater samples are now being tested for coronavirus, but in the future there may be other tests added, such as for influenza and opioids. There are any number of substances and microbes that are expelled from the body in this manner, any of which can be detected if there’s enough of them. State and federal funds are being used to include the samples from the Village’s sewage treatment plant in this scheme.
David Larsen, a public health professor at Syracuse University, is overseeing the wastewater monitoring with state health officials. Each time a New Paltz treatment plant operator ships off one of the daily samples to Quadrant Biosciences, Larsen explained, lab workers test it for the Sars-CoV2 virus and send back a spreadsheet with the results. The independent scientists working with Larsen write up memos weekly to explain the trends that are seen. According to Larsen, “the surveillance system will gain power over time,” helping to identify how the number of cases in New Paltz compares to what’s happening elsewhere in the state, and whether those numbers are going up or down.
Looking at what’s in the wastewater gives scientists the opportunity to identify what variants are kicking around, and potentially to identify “variants of potential concern.” The sheer variety of coronavirus cases gives some indication of “transmission intensity.” Larsen expects that the number of cases will be seen to be dropping off as the current surge diminishes; this means that there is an opportunity to establish a baseline before the next surge hits. “I’m hoping that by this summer, community transmission will be gone in most places, and there will be no need for rules.” However, the professor does expect that this will not be the last surge of this pandemic. It could come next winter, or even sooner if the combination of variants and human behaviors fits together in the worst possible way.
Testing of community sewage can give a warning about what’s going to be happening in hospitals, providing as much as two or three weeks of lead time. Similar data could also come from testing individuals, but the results of home tests are not always reported, and Larsen believes that pandemic fatigue could lead to less interest in testing overall. “Wastewater is unbiased, and not dependent on human behavior.”
Samples like these cannot be used to identify individuals who are sick, since wastewater at the treatment plant is the essence of aggregated data. The results from the first sample suggest that there is a moderate number of cases in New Paltz, but what’s important is the trend that is shown from multiple samples, taken day in and day out. Larsen explained that while a certain number of people in town may have contracted this coronavirus and also using bathrooms, what will be concerning is if the concentration of the virus goes up over time. That would indicate that there is transmission within the community, which is what public health officials try to avoid. That’s what leads to restrictions of one sort or another being imposed, such as requirements to cover faces and stricter rules on how many people may be inside a particular business at a given time.
All of this depends on treatment plant operators, and Larsen said that throughout the state, “they are fantastic to work with.” The ones in New Paltz are no different, in Larsen’s experience.
This is a technology that was ready for use in 2020, but it’s taken quite some time to shift resources from emergency response to this level of monitoring. According to Neil Bettez, the supervisor of the Town, more than half of the residents of New Paltz are using toilets hooked into the Village’s treatment system. A few dozen households are in a Town sewer district that isn’t yet connected, and many more homes and businesses have septic systems that aren’t connected to anything else at all. Larsen said that once the systems are in place, samples can be tested for other infectious diseases including influenza, as well as opioids such as heroin and oxycodone. Public health officials do not need to know who is personally suffering from what disease to develop plans to improve the health of a community overall. It all starts with recognizing that sewage is not an afterthought.