South Hadley testing sewage to track prevalence of COVID-19

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  • Vince Mooney, a senior operator at the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant in Chicopee, fills three 50 ml vials with water collected from the facility's composite sampler on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vince Mooney, a senior operator at the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant in Chicopee, fills three vials with water collected from the facility's composite sampler on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vince Mooney, a senior operator at the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant in Chicopee, fills three vials with water collected from the facility’s composite sampler on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vince Mooney, a senior operator at the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant in Chicopee, fills three 50 ml vials with water collected from the facility's composite sampler on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This composite sampler, shown Wednesday, is stationed at the head of the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant to collect water samples for evaluation. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The primary, aerator and secondary tanks of the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant on James Street in Chicopee. Photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An aerator tank operates at the South Hadley wastewater treatment plant on James Street in Chicopee on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2020 7:17:44 PM
Modified: 9/9/2020 7:17:34 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — When assessing the local prevalence of COVID-19, most communities rely on the number of residents who test positive for the active virus.

In South Hadley, officials are using an additional source to estimate how many cases are in town: sewage.

While South Hadley tallies its number of cases in town and surrounding areas “based on county data and what our Board of Health is tracking,” not everyone develops symptoms and is tested for the virus. Wastewater testing can detect the presence of the virus even when residents are asymptomatic based on virus particles in sewage.

“We know we have so many cases based on county data and what our Board of Health is tracking, but what about that group that’s asymptomatic?” said Melissa LaBonte, water pollution control compliance manager for South Hadley. “It kind of gives you an idea of what we have out in the community.

To track the data, the town sends sewage samples twice a month to BioBot, an analytics company in Cambridge, which uses wastewater samples to assess public health data.

The number of particles in the wastewater suggests around 400 cases in town, according to the most recent report from August. Based on testing results, South Hadley has tallied 212 cases as of Tuesday.

The testing isn’t perfect, according to LaBonte, who believes that the 400 figure is likely higher than the actual number of cases in South Hadley. But the sewage data has generally followed virus trends in town — reflecting a bump in cases last month attributed to a large indoor gathering, for instance —and likely picks up on cases that the town has not officially accounted for, she said.

“I don’t think that there are 400 cases, but I do think that it is indicative that there are more cases than we are aware of,” LaBonte said.

But even if the estimated number is not completely accurate, the results can still be used as one of several tools to guide town officials in making public health and reopening decisions, she said.

The Water Pollution Control division coordinates with the town each month to decide when to carry out the testing: one of the two monthly samples are collected at a consistent date, but the other sample is scheduled to assess how certain events, such as long weekends or holidays, impact the town’s COVID-19 numbers. This month, for example, one round of samples will be collected around the time that infections contracted over Labor Day weekend should start to appear.

South Hadley is not the only community to look to wastewater for COVID-19 tracking purposes. In Amherst, the University of Massachusetts department of civil engineering is working with the town to explore a similar program to identify outbreaks.

Other schools, such as the University of Arizona, the University of California San Diego, Utah State University and Syracuse University have also turned to sewage testing in an attempt to identify and control outbreaks. The University of Arizona credits this testing with preventing an outbreak in a 311-person dorm after COVID-19 particles in the building’s wastewater samples prompted testing that identified two infected but asymptomatic students, the Washington Post reported.

Over 170 wastewater facilities in 37 states are participating in wastewater testing, according to the newspaper.

At the statewide level, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is also participating in wastewater testing through BioBot. The MWRA sends the company wastewater samples three times each week from its Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, which serves 43 communities in the greater Boston area.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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