Unique Maine partnership to measure COVID-19 prevalence by testing Greater Portland’s wastewater

07.28.2020

The Portland Water District and Saint Joseph’s College will begin testing Greater Portland’s wastewater for inactive SARS-CoV-2  (COVID-19) fragments using a newly developed method from IDEXX. The first samples were collected in the influent at the Portland and Westbrook wastewater plants and delivered to Saint Joseph’s College where results will be analyzed and trended by a research team led by Dr. Yolanda Brooks, assistant professor of biology.  The Portland Water District has worked closely with the college, DEP and DHHS to establish this three-month testing program and results will be shared with both agencies. 

This new effort aims to lowers costs by as much as 90% in some cases, improve detection limits, and address other challenges associated with more rural states, like Maine.  While COVID-19 wastewater-based epidemiology is increasing across the country, there are no standard tests or methods and costs can be a limiting factor, sometimes costing $1,500 a sample. What makes this Maine partnership unique is local partners focused on delivering a Maine-based solution to detect fluctuations in a low infection rate population. If the effort progresses well, this could provide a lower cost and more sensitive test for other Maine communities.

“I’m excited by the collaboration and the development of a Maine-based program to monitor wastewater influent for indications of COVID-19 infections in the communities we serve.  Since first learning of the possibility, we’ve understood the importance of engaging with the public health sector.  Having DEP and DHHS aware of our data will hopefully make this effort a valuable component of a larger sentinel monitoring effort,” stated Scott Firmin, Director of Wastewater Services at the Portland Water District.

"Building a unique partnership between an educational institution and a public utility can provide an early warning to our public health systems" said Yolanda Brooks, Assistant Professor of Biology at Saint Joseph's College and the primary investigator. "Previous studies have demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID19, is shed in feces. Evaluating concentrations at the community level can help us monitor the number of cases including symptomatic, pre-symptomatic, sub-clinical, and asymptomatic cases. I'm excited to kick off this important project."

More and more communities are turning to wastewater-based epidemiology to screen for infection rates because the data can provide early detection of asymptomatic infections and testing capabilities for individuals can still be limited. Studies have shown that similar wastewater testing programs can indicate infections about a week before clinical testing shows the infections. Wastewater testing is also less expensive and invasive than individual diagnostic testing. Research shows that while fragments of the virus are detectable in human waste, it is unlikely that viable virus is present in the influent wastewater and that the wastewater treatment process has proven effective at eliminating other coronaviruses.

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