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Home tests make tracking COVID harder. WNY health officials are turning to the sewers instead

COVID in Erie County
UB Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
COVID in Erie County

While official testing numbers in Western New York for COVID-19 are running high, with 11.45% positivity on Wednesday, those figures are regarded as less reliable than they used to be. That's because more people are using home test kits and not all of them are reporting when they're positive.

Instead, public health researchers are shifting to sampling sewer systems. That is the result of all of the people who use sewers and treatment networks, most of the regional population. The samples go to a series of labs at the University at Buffalo.

Ian Bradley is an assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering. He considers himself an environmental microbiologist.

Bradley said the sewer testing shows a lot of COVID.

“We're seeing some of the highest levels of SARS-Covid-2 in wastewater we've seen in quite some time," he said. "We have levels of SARS-covid-2 in wastewater that are equal or higher than they were back in January, which means we have a lot of COVID in the area, even if we aren't reporting cases.”

This a reflection of growing scientific use of sewer testing, originally for pharmaceutical and illegal drug sampling. Bradley said more and more researchers are looking at more and more things.

“Look at different things, we started realizing that we can use this for not only things like pathogens or viruses, but we can use this for different drugs, different chemicals, things like that," he said. "We’re working with Dr. [Diana] Aga from the RENEW Institute to do chemicals and drugs that people are prescribing, anti-viral medications and things like that, in addition to viruses and bacteria.”

Bradley said testing for monkeypox will start as soon as Albany gets the research protocols set up and there may soon be testing for polio, in light of it being found in two Hudson Valley counties sewer systems.

UB has a number of labs looking at COVID and other health issues. One lab says the virus locally is dominated by the most recent variant, BA.5.

Another lab monitors COVID drugs, so that the testing shows both infection level and treatment. That’s the lab of Aga at the RENEW Institute.

“Who are actually looking for the pieces of the virus in our lab and looking for pieces of RNA and DNA and in her lab, we're looking at some of the medications that are being prescribed," Bradley said. "For example, is Paxlovid being used or are there other things that shouldn't be being prescribed but we actually can find in the wastewater, sometimes.”

Bradley said there is increasing interest from other researchers at UB in how sewer sampling might be used in their research.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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