Albany wastewater shows 32% spike in COVID intensity

— Map from New York State’s Surveillance Network

Most counties in New York State have some facilities where wastewater is being sampled for signs of the coronavirus.

ALBANY COUNTY — Wastewater samples collected and analyzed on April 4 have shown a 32 percent spike in COVID-19 intensity over a two-week period, according to the county’s health department.

“Measuring COVID levels in wastewater is a leading indicator of the Coronavirus infection rate and a more accurate estimation, as it is not dependent on individuals making the choice to be tested,” said a county release on Friday afternoon. “A spike in COVID intensity will likely mean a corresponding spike in COVID case counts and percent positivity in the near future.”

The wastewater samples were taken from the Albany County Water Purification District’s South Plant, which serves an estimated 80,922 Albany residents. The announcement stressed that the water samples represent just a portion of the city, and may not apply to Albany County as a whole, as most water-treatment facilities have not established this type of reporting mechanism. 

As The Enterprise reported in August 2020, Albany was part of a pilot program to detect the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater, which is designed to set up an early indicator system to forecast the virus’s spread in communities. The successful pilot project, funded by the Department for Environmental conservation, took place for six weeks in Albany, Erie, Onondaga, and Orange counties.

Early in the pandemic, scientific studies showed that the genetic material of the virus causing the disease could be detected in the feces of up to 40 percent of people who were infected. Although wastewater is not believed to be a source of transmitting COVID-19, the thought was that it can be traced through wastewater just as the poliovirus was decades ago.

The state started its wastewater surveillance project in March 2020, shortly after a project in the Netherlands concluded it was feasible, according to the state’s website. Now most counties have at least one testing site.

Last month, Kirsten St. George, chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the Wadsworth Center, said there is now wastewater monitoring in more than 50 counties. This will be expanded to cover all 64 of the state’s counties, she said at a press conference. She thanked the governor for including $5 million in her executive budget to expand surveillance.

“It will also use high-speed sequencing methods to facilitate the rapid identification of variants and their circulation throughout the state. So we will have early warning signals at an even more widespread rate,” St. George said.

“The Environmental Protection Agency will eventually standardize and license different methods, but that process takes quite a long time and is years away,” says the state’s website, which goes on to describe the methods currently being used, each with pros and cons.

The earliest use of wastewater surveillance in the United States was for polio in the 1940s when researchers from Yale University tested wastewater for traces of the virus. In the 1960s, researchers began testing sewage in Middletown, Connecticut for the presence of poliovirus before, during, and after a vaccination campaign, according to the state website, which says this practice is still used in examining the effectiveness of vaccine efforts.

Early wastewater surveillance methods depended on cell-culture methods. Since then, both quantitative PCR and droplet digital PCR have been developed and used for wastewater lab testing. Research has also shown that the use of biomarkers may be effective in quantifying the coronavirus in wastewater and understanding disease dynamics within a community.

Early on during the pandemic, studies showed that wastewater case detection preceded clinical detection, suggesting that wastewater surveillance could provide an early warning system for community spread. Now, various wastewater surveillance systems have been implemented in more than 50 countries and 260 universities around the world.



As Friday’s release from Albany County’s health department noted, wastewater analysis can provide a more accurate estimation, as it doesn’t depend on people getting tested.

This more accurate estimation becomes important as use of home tests increases and as county health departments have given up their original emphasis on tracking every case.

Albany County continues to encourage residents to submit the positive results of at-home COVID testing on the county website.

On Friday, Governor Kathy Hochul sent out a release, noting that her administration has now distributed more than 70 million COVID-19 over-the-counter tests.

“At-home COVID-19 testing is now widely available and provides real-time information regarding your COVID-19 status, particularly as we are seeing infections increase,” said the state’s health commissioner, Mary Bassett, in the release. “People who test positive should isolate and, for those with symptoms, seek medical advice for treatment as soon as possible.”

At-home rapid tests are being provided regularly to schools and nursing homes throughout the state, the governor’s office said, and the state recently distributed more than 2.8 million tests to elected officials to provide to the public at no cost.

Guilderland school Superintendent Marie Wiles sent a notice to parents on Friday, saying, “To ensure that students and families enjoy a safe break and return to school, the district is providing rapid, at-home COVID-19 test kits to all GCSD families who would like one. With increased travel over break and the emergence of a new variant, we hope families will use these test kits to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the GCSD community.”

Several thousand additional test kits as well as 59,000 high-quality face masks have been directly distributed to counties in the Central New York region, the governor's office said. 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled most of New York State, including Albany County, as having a “low” community level of COVID-19, three Central and Southern Tier counties — Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga — are labeled “high” and seven — Broome, Delaware, Madison, Seneca, Schuyler, Tioga, and Tompkins — are labeled “medium.”

Also, Essex County in the North Country is labeled “medium.”

As of April 2, the CDC map shows 84.3 percent of the COVID-19 cases in New York and New Jersey are of the BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant.


Newest numbers

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy continues to put out twice-weekly releases with the latest COVID data.

On Friday, he reported three more COVID-related deaths, bringing the county’s toll to 541.

Two of the victims — a man in his eighties and a woman in her eighties — were previously unreported deaths. The third, a man in his seventies, died this week.

The county’s seven-day average of new daily positive cases is now up to 64.8; its cases per 100,000 are up to 16.6; and its average infection rate is 5.5 percent.

The state last week, following federal guidance, said the count of cases per 100,000 in population is the most stable gauge of the virus. Statewide, New York, as a seven-day average, reports 19.7 cases per 100,000.

Central New York has the highest count at 47.4 followed by the Southern Tier at 27.3 cases per 100,000. 

McCoy reported that there are now 15 county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus — a net increase of two since Tuesday. Of those hospital patients, one is in  an intensive-care unit.

“The vaccine continues to be the best protection from the virus, especially for those who have underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems,” said McCoy in the release. “Additionally, we are now offering the second booster shot for those who are eligible.”

A quarter of county residents are still not fully vaccinated: 74.3 percent are fully vaccinated. Among the eligible population, 65.9 percent have now received the first booster shot.

Residents can receive free Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, including booster shots, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., each week at the Albany County Department of Health, 175 Green Street. Aside from Wednesdays, appointments are required and can be made at the link here

The state site at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland is also giving free vaccinations.

Albany County continues to deliver vaccines to homebound residents, which includes seniors,people with disabilities, those lacking childcare and those with other accessibility issues. Anyone who would like to schedule a time for a vaccine appointment should call 518-447-7198.

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