Bergen County, which continues to be one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus since New Jersey’s first case, is testing the county’s sewage for COVID-19, potentially anticipating outbreaks two weeks before they hit, officials said.
In a press conference Friday, Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco announced that through a partnership with Columbia University, the Bergen County Utilities Authority and Aecom, a global engineering firm, the county had been testing its wastewater for COVID-19 and hopes to expand the testing statewide.
“Global and United States studies have shown that this type of monitoring can provide an early indication up to two weeks of increases or decreases in COVID cases in an area,” said Tedesco.
The testing, already used in colleges and universities like Columbia University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has the potential to catch outbreaks 10 days to two weeks early, said Tedesco. The testing is one of the few weapons available to combat coronavirus outbreaks and has been used to test for viruses and outbreaks across the globe.
Since March, at least 670 samples have been taken from Bergen County’s wastewater, said Tedesco.
The test looks for genetic material in the wastewater that shows someone is infected, experts previously told NJ Advance Media. Humans secrete viral RNA in feces when they are infected. Public health officials all over the world have used wastewater testing, usually by testing at water treatment plants.
The test can detect viral RNA in the feces before a person is symptomatic, allowing for officials to pick up a potential case before the person even thinks of getting a test, Mitchell Gayer, director of environmental health and safety at NJIT, previously told NJ Advance Media.
The early detection enables officials to get ahead of any outbreaks. After traces of COVID-19 genetic material were found in the sewage of one of the dorms at NJIT in September, 300 students were made to quarantine and the college was able to anticipate the outbreak.
Columbia University began sampling and testing wastewater at several of its dormitories in early September, the university reported. The virus analysis is conducted in a lab at the university that has the capacity to process as many as 100 samples a day, the university reported.
Results were available within 24 to 48 hours, according to the university.
The Bergen County Utilities Authority sewershed, where samples were being taken, serves about 47 municipalities in the county, representing about 580,000 residents, said Julien Neals, the Bergen County Administrator. The testing project, which started in March, was showing lead times as much as two to three weeks, he said.
“For many years, wastewater studies have been performed to determine the presence of diseases,” said Neals. “These have included things like opioid concentrations, norovirus, measles and now for the presence of COVID-19.”
“It provides a clear picture of the overall community health beyond just a fraction of the population that gets tested,” Neals said. “It also includes those who show no symptoms at all.”
In Bergen County, which has the second-most cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey with 31,006 cases as of Friday, the hope is that the testing will anticipate pockets of outbreaks in the county, down to the specific municipality, said Tedesco.
And with two vaccines showing promise, the county could use the same wastewater testing to determine the vaccines’ effectiveness, he said.
Since May, the team from Columbia University has been taking samples from wastewater at sites across Bergen County, including the Bergen County Utilities Authority’s Little Ferry treatment plant, the Edgewater treatment plant, several pump stations and healthcare facilities and one of the jails, said Kartik Chandran Chandran, a professor of environmental engineering leading the testing in Bergen County.
The team has been taking samples several times a week continuously since joining up with the effort, totaling as many as 680 tests, said Chandran.
The team uses a pump device called an autosampler that can be programmed to collect samples at a certain frequency, said Chandran. The system is temperature controlled in order to keep the samples at 4 degrees Celsius, he said. After a 24 hour period, the samples are taken and driven across the Hudson River by Aecom to a lab at Columbia University, he said.
There, the samples are analyzed using CDC protocols, said Chandran.
“Testing for COVID and just about any pathogens in wastewater gives us a picture of the entire community, rather than just those individuals who get tested,” said Chandran. “It gives us a much more thorough picture. A complete picture.”
“The picture actually leads the actual infections, so we can get information and buy ourselves valuable time to take corrective actions prior to the entire community getting infected,” he said.
Additionally, he said, the data derived from wastewater testing can potentially be narrowed down to locations as specific as buildings served by certain pipelines, he said.
“This is one of the best data sets that exists today,” said Chandran. “Not just in the United States but potentially around the world.”
The hope, said Tedesco, is to expand the wastewater testing across New Jersey, including at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and Northwest Bergen County Utilities Authority, preventing outbreaks as the second wave continues to hit the state. Tedesco hopes that Gov. Phil Murphy will help to expand the testing statewide, he said.
The testing has been funded by the National Science Foundation, but will continue to be funded by redirecting CARES Act funding, said Tedesco. Other institutions, including Rowan University, are currently looking into implementing wastewater testing at their facilities.
“The information we’re getting is real solid information in regards to what is happening right at this time,” said Tedesco. “We can actually get in there now, right away and start to take corrective action immediately, without having to test people.”
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