Health Care

More Vermont towns may begin testing wastewater for Covid-19

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Burlington Wastewater Treatment Facility
The Burlington wastewater treatment facility on Lavalley Lane in Burlington. Since August 2020, Burlington has tested its sewer system to monitor Covid-19 levels. Now, half a dozen Vermont municipalities have been invited to test their wastewater as well. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Half a dozen Vermont municipalities have been invited to join a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program to test wastewater for Covid-19.

The National Wastewater Surveillance System, working with private contractor LuminUltra, approved Brighton, Canaan, Newport City, Northfield, St. Albans and Springfield to participate in the program.

Wastewater testing has been shown to be an early surveillance tool, said Karen Hinkle, associate provost for research at Norwich University. Wastewater testing for the coronavirus can predict Covid-19 cases roughly six days in advance, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. 

The six municipalities still need to decide whether to participate, said Amy Polaczyk, wastewater program manager at the Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Two sites have already enrolled in the program, National Wastewater Surveillance System spokesperson Rachel West said. She would not confirm which towns had signed on. 

“We did work with the Department of Health in late November to determine which facilities we would suggest to the CDC to include in the surveillance system,” Polaczyk said. “The CDC did send that suggestion to their contractor who is carrying out the work, and that contractor has been in contact with some facilities around the state.”

The Department of Health will have access to the wastewater data, said Katie Warchut, a spokesperson for the department. 

In December, LuminUltra announced that it had won a CDC contract to provide Covid-19 surveillance testing at 500 sites through March 2022. The company is still soliciting applications from wastewater utilities interested in participating.

LuminaUltra said its systems offer rapid, noninvasive insights into the health of large or targeted populations, including municipalities, care homes and dormitories. The company also said it can be a powerful early warning tool for identifying asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

This is not Vermont’s first foray into testing wastewater for early warning signs of Covid-19.

Since August 2020, Burlington has tested its sewer system to monitor Covid-19 levels and detect the presence of new coronavirus variants such as Omicron. 

Essex Junction, Rutland and South Burlington also have used wastewater testing during the pandemic, according to Polaczyk. 

In St. Albans, Wastewater Chief Operator Brian Willett said the public works director was still discussing whether to participate in the federally funded testing. The program would involve collecting samples from two primary wastewater lines twice a week, Willett said. 

However, small treatment plants may have a harder time freeing up the personnel to handle the testing.

“We don’t have the manpower to be opening up manholes in the middle of the winter to do sampling every day,” said April Busfield, chief operator for the treatment plant that serves Canaan, Vermont, and Stewartstown, New Hampshire. 

Because her treatment plant serves a wide area, staff would need to isolate different areas by testing separate sewer lines, she said. In the winter, that means opening up icy manhole covers — a potentially dangerous process. 

However, Busfield said she is still considering the possibility and plans to raise the issue with Canaan town officials, aiming to make a decision as soon as next week.

In June, a group of academic scientists, municipal wastewater directors and a state official formed the Vermont Initiative for Biological and Environmental Surveillance, which meets to discuss wastewater testing for Covid-19. 

“We are lucky in Vermont that we are a small enough state that you can have a realistic conversation between scientists, wastewater municipal officials, government officials, and academia,” Hinkle said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the department for which Amy Polaczyk works.

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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