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Wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 is about to take off in N.H.

Annie Ropeik
Wastewater surveillance can be used as an early predictor that the virus is spreading in a community.

This week, state health officials met with the leaders of dozens of wastewater treatment plants in New Hampshire to discuss plans for a new COVID data tracking project.

With so many Granite Staters testing for COVID-19 at home, state data on new cases isn’t as useful an indicator of COVID-19 levels as it used to be. People who are asymptomatic or who don’t have easy access to testing may not test at all, which has always been a pitfall of counting individual test results.

“This approach, [tracking wastewater data] is really helpful because we can actually see what's happening without necessarily needing to have the individual test data,” said Dr. Paula Mouser, director of the COVID Wastewater Program at the University of New Hampshire.

While wastewater data doesn’t show how many people in a given community have the virus, it illustrates changes in levels of COVID-19. People infected with COVID shed the virus in their feces. Even if they don’t have symptoms, it can be detected in the wastewater.

Wastewater surveillance can be used as an early predictor that the virus is spreading in a community. It could also help state officials, local businesses, and residents make decisions about COVID-19 safety protocols.

State health officials hope to regularly test wastewater levels at around two dozen wastewater treatment plants. There are 78 municipal wastewater treatment plants in New Hampshire.

Initially a lab at UNH will process the specimen, a task the state hopes to eventually do itself.

Stephanie Locke, the bureau chief for New Hampshire’s Bureau of Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery at the Division of Public Health Services, said it’s important to have facilities from different parts of the state participate in the program.

“We want representation from both our rural and our more urban communities,” Locke said.

She said the program will begin in the coming months.

The data will be publicly available and shared with the CDC, Locke said.

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