Erie County testing wastewater for COVID-19

Posted at 5:40 PM, Jun 10, 2021

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — Erie County is now testing wastewater for COVID-19. The county will be running a PCR test on wastewater which can determine if someone is excreting the virus. Experts are calling the testing system a game-changer.

"If we know somewhere that there is a disease that's endemic and we're worried about it becoming the next pandemic, we can start monitoring that in our wastewater. You can see it arrive much earlier than symptoms and people actually going to hospitals and things like that. We can actually detect it weeks earlier," Ian Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the University at Buffalo, said.

"I look at wastewater surveillance as sort of an early warning system. If we see a sudden upward trend, we'll know that we have to start looking for cases, diagnose certain individuals, then apply the appropriate public health measures to minimize further cases," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of Infectious Disease at the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine.

The county will be taking samples from eight sampling service areas, three of which are locationed in the UB North Campus area.
"When people go to the bathroom and they're sick with COVID-19, they excrete some of those virus particles into the wastewater," Bradley said.

The PCR Test run on that wastewater can determine if someone is excreting the virus.

"The trends in wastewater can show what's happening in the community by up to two weeks before hospitalizations, so there is early detection and early warnings of trends," Bradley said.

With early knowledge of trends, the Department of Health can respond.

"We need to respond with education in that community. We need to respond with offering aggressive testing," Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said.

This way they can limit the spread of COVID-19. It's been successful in the past, and the method is used across the globe to detect other viruses.

"People have used it world wide for polio virus. We've been able to detect areas where we need to ramp up vaccination," Bradley said.

The University at Buffalo even tested its own wastewater for COVID-19.

"I think the UB pilot program was extraordinarily successful. We've established base lines. We can detect single cases out of a dormitory," Dr. Russo said.

Experts say this can be utilized for more than just COVID-19. It's a tool that can come in handy in the future.

"That's what's really exciting. It doesn't have to be just for COVID-19. We can detect new outbreaks of new disease," Bradley said.