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N.H. is putting COVID wastewater data online, helping track virus’s spread

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.

New Hampshire’s health department is testing sewage from 14 communities for COVID-19, and plans to start publishing that data online soon.

Officials say the wastewater testing — which can pick up on viral fragments shed by people infected with the disease — helps track the spread of COVID-19 in local communities.

The data could serve as an early warning sign if transmission starts to rise — which is especially important now that so many people are using at-home tests. That has made reported case counts a less reliable indicator of how much the virus is actually spreading.

“Wastewater surveillance does not depend on individuals testing for COVID-19, so this new program has the potential to provide additional and earlier insight about COVID-19 in our communities,” Division of Public Health Services Patricia Tilley said in a news release Thursday.

The wastewater surveillance program launched earlier this year, with officials saying they hoped to eventually test samples from about two dozen locations regularly. The 14 currently participating wastewater treatment plants are spread around the state. They include facilities in Berlin, Dover, Durham, Hampton, Hanover, Keene, Manchester, Merrimack, Newmarket, Newport, Plymouth, Sunapee and two in Portsmouth.

The program is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state’s public health lab is now handling the testing, after taking over from the University of New Hampshire in October.

A spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services said she did not have an exact date for when the data will start publishing online.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at

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