Bergen County, which remains one of the worst affected by the coronavirus since the first New Jersey case, is testing the county’s sewer system for COVID-19, potentially expecting outbreaks two weeks before it strikes, officials said.
At a press conference on Friday, Bergen County Executive Director Jim Tedesco announced that through a partnership with Columbia University, Bergen County Administrative Office and Aecom, a global engineering firm, the county has tested its wastewater for COVID-1
“Global and US studies show that this type of monitoring can provide an early indication of up to two weeks for an increase or decrease in COVID cases in an area,” Tedesco said.
The testing, which is already being used in colleges and universities such as Columbia University and the Institute of Technology in New Jersey, has the potential to affect outbreaks 10 days to two weeks earlier, Tedesco said. Testing is one of the few weapons available to combat coronavirus outbreaks and has been used to test for viruses and outbreaks worldwide.
At least 670 samples have been taken from Bergen County wastewater since March, Tedesco said.
The test looks for genetic material in the wastewater that shows someone is infected, experts told NJ Advance Media earlier. Humans secrete viral RNA in the feces when infected. Public health officials around the world have used wastewater testing, usually through testing in treatment plants.
The test can detect viral RNA in faeces before a person is symptomatic, allowing officials to take a potential case before the person even thinks about doing a test, Mitchell Geier, director of environment and health at NJIT, said before NJ Advance Media.
Early detection allows officials to anticipate all outbreaks. After traces of COVID-19 genetic material were found in the sewers of one of the NJIT dormitories in September, 300 students were quarantined and the college was able to predict the outbreak.
The university has been collecting samples since the beginning of the semester, but the Sept. 16 test is the first time the coronavirus has been detected.
Columbia University began sampling and testing wastewater in several of its dormitories in early September, the university said. The virus analysis is performed in a laboratory at the university, which has the capacity to process up to 100 samples per day, the university said.
The results were available within 24 to 48 hours, according to the university.
The Bergen County Sewage Service, where sampling takes place, serves about 47 municipalities in the county, representing about 580,000 residents, said Julien Niels, Bergen County administrator. The testing project, which starts in March, shows a implementation time of two to three weeks, he said.
“Sewage studies have been conducted for many years to determine the presence of disease,” Niels said. “They include things like concentrations of opioids, norovirus, measles and now the presence of COVID-19.”
“It provides a clear picture of the overall health of the community, except for just part of the population being tested,” Niels said. “Includes those who show no symptoms at all.”
In Bergen County, which has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey with 31,006 cases as of Friday, it is hoped that testing will predict outbreaks in the county, to the specific municipality, Tedesco said.
And with two promising vaccines, the county can use the same wastewater testing to determine the effectiveness of the vaccines, he said.
Since May, the Columbia University team has been sampling wastewater at sites in Bergen County, including the Bergen County Administration’s Little Ferry treatment plant, Edgewater treatment plant, several pumping stations and health facilities, and one of the prisons, said Kartik Chandran Chandran, a professor. in Environmental Engineering, leading testing in the district of Bergen.
The team has been sampling several times a week continuously since joining the effort, for a total of 680 tests, Chandran said.
The team uses a pumping device called an autosampler, which can be programmed to collect samples at a specific frequency, Chandran said. The system is temperature controlled to keep the samples at 4 degrees Celsius, he said. After a 24-hour period, samples were taken and taken across the Hudson River from Aecom to a lab at Columbia University, he said.
There, samples are analyzed using CDC protocols, Chandran said.
“Testing for COVID and almost all pathogens in wastewater gives us a picture of the whole community, not just those individuals being tested,” Chandran said. “It simply came to our notice then. Full picture. “
“The picture is actually leading to real infections, so we can get information and buy valuable time to take corrective action before the whole community becomes infected,” he said.
In addition, he said, data from wastewater testing could potentially be narrowed down to specific locations such as buildings served by certain pipelines, he said.
“This is one of the best datasets available today,” Chandran said. “Not just in the United States, but potentially around the world.”
The hope, Tedesco said, is to expand wastewater testing in New Jersey, including the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission and the Northwest Bergen County Utilities Service, preventing outbreaks as the second wave continues to hit the state. Tedesco hopes Governor Phil Murphy will help expand testing across the country, he said.
The testing is funded by the National Science Foundation, but will continue to be funded by redirecting funding from the Care Act, Tedesco said. Other institutions, including Rowan University, are currently conducting wastewater testing at their facilities.
“The information we are receiving is really solid information about what is happening at the moment,” Tedesco said. “In fact, we can come in right away and start taking corrective action immediately without having to test people.”
Thank you for relying on us to provide journalism that you can trust. Please consider support NJ.com with a voluntary subscription.
You can get to Rodrigo Torrejon firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rodrigotorrejon.