Sewage Tells Dirty Story Of COVID-19 Surge In Middlesex County

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FRAMINGHAM, MA — When at-home COVID-19 tests are hard to find and lines at testing centers stretch on for hours, what you flush down the toilet could be the next best thing to determine how fast the coronavirus is spreading.

That’s right: Public health officials in counties across the country are turning to your wastewater to determine the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities.

In fact, experts think sewage might be the key to better understanding the overall public health of cities and neighborhoods, especially in underserved areas that don’t have equal access to care, according to an NBC News report.

Find out what’s happening in Framingham with free, real-time updates from Patch.

“Every time an infected person uses the toilet, they’re flushing this information down the toilet, where it’s collecting and aggregating and mixing with poop from thousands of other people,” Newsha Ghaeli, a co-founder and president of Biobot Analytics, told NBC News.

“Even if you can’t access a test, you’re still pooping,” Ghaeli continued. “It doesn’t depend on you having access to health care or health insurance.”

Find out what’s happening in Framingham with free, real-time updates from Patch.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) — which accepts sewage from local communities including Framingham, Natick and Ashland — has literally seen off-the-charts coronavirus levels over the past week.

Biobot Analytics provides wastewater epidemiology for MWRA. According to the company’s wastewater dashboard, coronavirus levels detected in sewage samples across the country are higher now than at any previous point in the pandemic.

Through its analyses, the dashboard illustrates how wastewater-based COVID-19 monitoring can complement clinical testing on a regional and county basis, according to Biobot.

According to Biobot’s dashboard, on Dec. 16, the wastewater in Middlesex County was showing 60.5 per 100,000 people. Looking back, cases on Oct. 18 were about 16 per 100,000 people in Middlesex County.

Nationwide, wastewater across the United States showed cases at 38.7 per 100,000 people on Dec. 16, compared with 22.4 per 100,000 on Oct. 17.

Sewage monitoring shows case numbers surging in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Massachusetts, Missouri and North Carolina.

A team of researchers at the University of Missouri is among those working to track the virus through wastewater, according to NBC News. To identify the virus, researchers separate it from larger particles of waste and extract its genetic material. They’re also able to identify specific variants.

Monitoring sewage can also look for information on other public health issues such as obesity, opioids and even polio, Sheree Pagsuyoin, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told NBC News.

“People are becoming a little bit more open about using wastewater data to know where a disease is supposedly coming out,” she said. “We can use this technology to more efficiently monitor population health.”

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