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Wastewater testing for COVID-19 gaining traction across Franklin County

  • The Greenfield Water Pollution Control Facility off of Deerfield Street in Greenfield, which has been collecting samples of its wastewater to test for levels of COVID-19 since April. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Chelsey Little, superintendent of the newly renamed Clean Water Facility on Greenfield Road in Montague, which will soon begin collecting samples of its wastewater to test for levels of COVID-19. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Published: 7/27/2022 5:18:37 PM

With fewer PCR tests being conducted and residents less apt to report at-home test results, more municipalities are opting into wastewater testing programs to get a better sense of COVID-19 virus levels.

“That’s pretty much our only consistent way of knowing at this point what’s going on in our community,” explained Greenfield Health Director Jennifer Hoffman. “This gives us a very impartial viewpoint of people who have COVID in our community. We don’t know who it is, but we know if it’s going up or down, and that’s very helpful.”

People with an active COVID-19 infection excrete the virus in their stool, which ends up at a wastewater treatment facility, Hoffman previously explained. Samples of this material, which are sent to Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics for analysis, can be used to estimate virus levels in the population served by the Water Pollution Control Facility off of Deerfield Street.

While Greenfield has been sending samples of its wastewater for testing since April, neighboring towns are beginning to follow suit.

“I think it’s absolutely advantageous to be getting a better picture of actual levels of COVID,” commented Daniel Wasiuk, the health director in Montague, which is slated to begin its wastewater testing next week. “It’s absolutely still hard to grasp.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, has led the charge on implementing wastewater testing programs around the state through her role as chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health and the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management. She said her hope is that expanded awareness of COVID-19 trends in communities across the state will give the state and health officials a “modicum of surveillance to let us act accordingly to keep us open and keep folks safe going into the fall.”

“It’s become very clear that wastewater surveillance is highly effective, cost-efficient and is something that can scale up very, very quickly for greater nuance,” Comerford explained. “It’s a predictor — it can predict early-stage outbreaks.”

Wastewater testing comes at no cost to towns, Comerford said, as state Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders is using discretionary funding to cover the anticipated $10 million cost of testing plants across Massachusetts.

Montague and Sunderland are following in the footsteps of Greenfield, which began weekly testing in April, as they have engaged discussions with the state and signaled their intention to join the program. Deerfield, Hadley and Northampton are also in the onboarding process.

“We can get a better picture of what’s going on in Franklin County,” Hoffman said of the growing interest in the testing program.

At Sunderland’s Selectboard meeting on Monday, the board and Town Administrator Geoff Kravitz signaled their intention to join the testing program. The town was looking to partner with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but decided to start with free state testing for now.

“Let’s take the state testing at the plant,” commented Selectboard member Nathanial Waring. “Unless it’s looking like there’s going to be a huge spike, I don’t see a reason to test multiple sites at the cost of the town.”

Wasiuk said while Montague and its wastewater treatment facility have been wanting to participate in wastewater testing for some time, costs and labor associated with the process made it an unrealistic task for the newly renamed Clean Water Facility to undertake.

“I think more is better at this point, but more at times is cost-prohibitive,” Wasiuk said of monitoring COVID-19.

Wasiuk said facility staff had expressed concern that having to allot time toward conducting their own testing would inhibit their ability to complete day-to-day tasks efficiently. Having a state-subsidized engineer who will conduct the labor and complete related paperwork makes all the difference, he explained.

“This makes it much, much easier on everybody’s part,” Wasiuk said.

Comerford said the understanding of COVID-19’s presence in the community becomes clearer as more towns’ wastewater is tested.

“More participants is very much better, absolutely. It will give us a statewide picture,” Comerford noted. It is an imperfect solution, because roughly 30% of Massachusetts residents use septic systems, which are more challenging to test, but Comerford said there have been discussions about septic testing protocols if towns show interest.

“If we have a significant number of communities in the commonwealth wrapped around those communities on septic,” Comerford added, “we could get a regional perspective to protect those communities that are on septic.”

Although the testing is specifically for COVID-19, Hoffman said samples can also be used to track opioid levels or the presence of food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella or norovirus.

“It’s really worthwhile,” Hoffman said of the testing program, which Greenfield participates in at no cost. “It gives us information that helps us at least have an idea of what’s going on.”

According to the latest results available for Greenfield, which reflect samples collected on July 22, the concentration of COVID-19 decreased significantly from the previous week. On July 15, the effective virus concentration was roughly 1.9 million copies per liter of sewage. One week later, the concentration had decreased to 466,242 copies per liter of sewage.

“Last week’s spike was pretty significant,” Hoffman said by phone on Tuesday. “There are multiple factors; there are people gathering, and the BA.5 variant is extremely contagious.”

Once its own wastewater testing begins, Montague expects to see comparable patterns to what is observed in the neighboring city.

“You’ll probably see a lot of similarities to what Greenfield has,” epidemiologist Jack Sullivan told the Montague Board of Health last week.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081. Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com. Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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