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N.H. is looking for more communities to help track COVID through wastewater

Annie Ropeik
This NHPR file photo shows a wastewater plant in Merrimack. People infected with COVID shed the virus in their feces. Even if they don’t have symptoms, it can be detected in the wastewater.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services is looking for more wastewater treatment plants to participate in a COVID data tracking project.

People infected with COVID can shed the virus in their feces. That means even if someone doesn't have symptoms, the virus can be detected in the wastewater — allowing public health officials to monitor its spread even when traditional testing is less reliable.

While wastewater data doesn’t show how many people in a given community have the virus, it illustrates changes in levels of COVID-19.

So far, 12 wastewater plants are participating in the state's tracking program. They include more densely populated areas like Manchester, and more rural areas of the state.

The wastewater surveillance project aims to create a sustainable, long-term system for tracking COVID levels in New Hampshire communities, as the state shifts away from other methods, like counting positive tests.

Portsmouth has two plants participating in the new wastewater initiative. Samples from the plants are collected weekly and tested by the University of New Hampshire.

Glen Wilson, who manages Portsmouth's wastewater operations, said it's been pretty easy to participate in the project.

“It hasn’t been too bad,” he said.

The wastewater treatment facilities at Pease and Pierce Island have been contributing samples to the project for about a month, but it’s still too early to determine trends.

“When you collect data like this, it's very heavily dominated by watching what the past looks like,” said Terry Desmarais, city engineer and engineering supervisor for the city of Portsmouth.

State officials plan to eventually publish data from their wastewater monitoring project on their public COVID-19 dashboard. They also plan to share the results with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which already publishes some wastewater surveillance data on its public dashboards.

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