Erie County piloting program that tests for COVID-19 RNA in wastewater


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Samples of wastewater are taken from 10 sites across the region. The goal is to identify virus clusters before they spread.

HAMBURG, NY – A new early detection system for COVID-19 relying on sewage from homes and businesses could help the Erie County Health Department identify clusters before they spread.

The pilot program, which began on September 2, is halfway through and should be producing results by early October.

It works in partnership with the Erie County Department of Sanitation, the University of Buffalo, and the Erie County Health Department.

“We saw a lot of municipalities that were doing this work, and we said this might be something that we could really use to help and contribute to our community in a way that is different from our tradition,” according to Erie County Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation Joe Feigl.

According to several studies, Feigl said that what makes the program unique is the early warning it can provide. While a person infected with COVID-19 may not develop symptoms for several days, it has been shown that patients clear the RNA virus seven to 10 days before admission to hospital.

“What is really promising about this type of technology is that it is kind of a really leading indicator compared to the trailing index,” Feigl said.

Samples are taken at 10 different locations: the six largest wastewater treatment plants, one site in Tonawanda, and three around UB’s northern campus. Water is collected from any shower, toilet or washbasin connected to the main sewage system.

The program resulted in five samples, and another five samples are scheduled to be planned on Wednesdays and Three Fridays.

Because this is just a beta program, Feigl said the results still need to be examined. Instead of extending their sewage sampling to the entire county, they want to make sure it’s worth the extra cost.

“What we hope is that ultimately this will be a key indicator that can prevent an outbreak because we can get better data up front to better target areas with potential infections,” Feigl said.

2 On Your Side plans to report results of this program when this data becomes available.


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