Beacon, Cold Spring collecting samples for state
What Beacon and Cold Spring residents flush down their toilets is not a total waste.
The treatment plants in the city and village have, since last year, been part of a statewide network of 206 wastewater facilities whose employees are collecting samples of untreated influent and shipping them overnight to laboratories, where they are tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
With many infections going unreported because of the widespread use of home tests, those samples have become a key tool for measuring outbreaks, including one now driving up admissions to NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley and other area hospitals, along with statewide increase in deaths.
Results from samples collected after Thanksgiving from Beacon’s plant on Dennings Avenue and Cold Spring’s facility on Fair Street show sharp increases in concentrations of SARS-CoV-2, according to data from the New York State Wastewater Surveillance Network (bit.ly/sewage-testing).
Beacon and Cold Spring are among 115 facilities whose detection levels are at the top of a scale that ranges from low and moderate to four higher levels.
The program adjusts for fluctuations in the volume of influent and fecal matter entering a treatment facility, and considers two weeks of samples more reliable than a one-day measurement, explained Dan Lang, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Health at the state Department of Health. “It is a good measure of the level of virus in the community,” he said.
Wastewater surveillance has a long history. Scientists recognized in the 1850s that sewage could be analyzed for bacteria and viruses, and public health officials tested wastewater in the 1940s to identify outbreaks of polio, an intestinal virus.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established a national program. New York’s program became widespread in 2022.
“What’s new about wastewater surveillance since COVID is that we realized that respiratory viruses can be shed in fecal matter,” said Lang.
The most recent surge in COVID cases has been attributed to a variant called JN.1, which is better at infecting people and evading the immune system. Between Nov. 4 and Dec. 6 it grew from being identified as the cause of 2.6 percent of infections in the state to 41.7 percent.
Under the state wastewater surveillance program, the laboratories identify variants present in the local samples. While the state does not have variant information for Cold Spring, as of Dec. 17, JN.1 represented 76 percent of the variants found in Beacon’s wastewater.
Although scientists initially thought JN.1 did not make people sicker than previous variants, recent reports from Europe suggest its potency has been underestimated, said Lang.
A slew of newly admitted hospital patients can testify to its impact. New York hospitals reported 3,137 COVID patients on Wednesday (Jan. 10), which is below last winter’s peak of 4,350 but more than double the 1,427 patients reported on Dec. 1.
NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor reported 17 COVID patients on Jan. 5, its highest one-day total since Jan. 31, 2023. The number of patients fell to 13 on Tuesday (Jan. 9), but the hospital reported five deaths between Jan. 5 and that day.
Montefiore St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in the City of Newburgh reported 14 COVID patients on Tuesday, and Putnam Hospital Center in Carmel reported 11, its highest daily total since Jan. 6, 2023.
On Monday (Jan. 8), the state Department of Health advised hospitals and other health care facilities to require staff and volunteers to wear masks to protect themselves from sharp increases in COVID and flu cases.
The simultaneous outbreak of COVID, the flu and another respiratory illness, RSV, has led to more COVID data, said Lang. People unsure of what they have are getting tested for all three at health care facilities.
The results those facilities report to the state are enabling it to capture COVID infections that may have previously gone unreported. “We’re starting to see in the last few months that our case numbers are improving a little bit,” he said.
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