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Wastewater COVID testing expanding to 4 more counties

A student, wearing personal protective equipment and a white lab coat, in Ian Bradley’s lab prepares samples in test tubes to analyze.
University at Buffalo
A student in Ian Bradley’s lab prepares samples to analyze.

Since late in 2020, a research lab at the University at Buffalo has been studying local COVID rates by testing sewer wastewater for levels of the virus. Another lab then checks the same waste water for variants of the virus.

Testing waste water for contaminants, like pharmaceutical or illegal drugs, isn't very new, but using it as a harbinger is new. That's the idea that the virus levels in wastewater will warn of what is coming in infection rates in the public. It's becoming an important clue of rises or falls in infections.

After that long test project in Erie County, Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Ian Bradley's lab is expanding into Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

"We're working with sewage treatment plants and we're expanding wastewater surveillance to other counties as part of a state initiative," Bradley said. "So we're working with the state and also the federal government, because the CDC has been expanding wastewater surveillance. The idea is using this not just for SARS-COVID-2, but using it for flu, for norovirus and for being able to track other diseases before we find them in the community."

While there are many homes and businesses in all these counties that don't have municipal sewage treatment, Bradley said the plants cover about 90% of the population, so the test results are pretty indicative.

"They already take what we call composite samples. So they have a sampler that takes a little bit of the flow coming into the plant every 15 minutes or every hour and then puts together a sample for 24 hours," Bradley said. "We measure that 24-hour composite sample. So we have a bottle that they collect for us and that has a snapshot of the entire waste water flow for 24 hours."

The tests also work with UB Professor Jennifer Surtees' lab, so the wastewater can be sequenced for COVID variants. Bradley said the state Health Department is working with researchers across the state to set up a sewage treatment plant network of waste water testing.

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.