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'Might need to get a COVID-19 shot every year,' says county executive

Two people in knit caps, facial masks and yellow workers vests lower a blue water jug into an open manhole
University at Buffalo
Sewer water is tested twice a week for the presence of COVID-19.

Government and university researchers are increasingly looking at COVID-19 as a problem that won't go away any time soon.

That's why Erie County and the University at Buffalo are putting together a long-range sewer sampling system that will constantly look for COVID in sewage.

It's already in use in seven sewer systems in the county and a more formal structure is in the works, allowing for individual localized sewer systems to be tested. The county is looking to hire someone to do all of the sampling, for delivery to a UB lab.

"We are taking short-term action to address COVID-19 in our community, but we're also planning long term to ensure that we're going to have the resources necessary to deal with what potentially could be around forever," said County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "It may be like the flu, that there are variants every year and you get a flu shot every year. Might need to get a COVID-19 shot every year."

The wastewater is collected twice a week and goes to the UB lab of environmental engineer Ian Bradley for testing. He said Washington is establishing a nationwide network of similar testing to check what's occurring now and what might turn up in the future.

A variety of electronic equipment tests sewer water
University at Buffalo
Water samples got to Ian Bradley's lab at the University at Buffalo for testing.

"We saw large increases in January and March when we had outbreaks and then, thankfully, this went to very low levels in June," Bradley said. "But, unfortunately, in the start of July we started seeing increases again. And now, over the last couple of weeks, we've seen some larger increases in our detection of the virus in wastewater in both Buffalo and Amherst."

The scientist said this has become such a standard public health tool that there are large universities where every single building is tested. What started as a way to look for opioids has turned into a public health research necessity.

"We've used it in the past," Bradley said. "There's some people who have used it to detect opioids in wastewater. Out in Arizona, at the University of Arizona, they had a dashboard a few years ago looking at opioid usage. We've been able to use it for polio, to find out areas that are not vaccinated for polio. People started applying this to COVID-19, a year ago."

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.