New Statewide Wastewater Surveillance System Provides 3-5 Days Early Warning, Community-Level Disease Transmission Data
COVID-19 Variants Can Be Detected Through Sequencing Wastewater Samples
Initial Wastewater Surveillance Efforts Statewide Have Already Provided Monitoring for More Than 2 Million Upstate and Long Island Residents
Governor Kathy Hochul today announced a new partnership between the New York State Department of Health and Syracuse University to continue its ground-breaking and innovative study to analyze wastewater for COVID-19. Wastewater surveillance can provide up to three to five days early warning that COVID-19 cases are increasing or decreasing in a community, and studies have shown that it can be used to detect variants of the virus through sequencing wastewater samples, once identified.
“We’re learning new things about the COVID-19 virus every day, and in order to stay ahead of it, we’ve had to adopt new and innovative strategies for prevention and detection, particularly when it comes to variants,” Governor Hochul said. “I thank our nation-leading scientists and researchers at the Department of Health, and our academic partners at Syracuse University and SUNY Buffalo, SUNY ESF and SUNY Stony Brook for their efforts to track the virus through the cutting-edge wastewater surveillance program that will undoubtedly be used to inform public health issues well into the future.”
It is critical to understand the direction of the COVID-19 pandemic and since its earliest days, New York State has used metrics based upon human testing and rates of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths to better determine where to deploy resources and initiate emergency orders to keep people safe. Testing wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19 adds a new dimension to community surveillance that doesn’t depend upon testing individuals.
Acting New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said, “We will use every available resource to stem the tide of COVID-19, and I thank the Syracuse University researchers who have made this wastewater surveillance possible. This surveillance provides New York with an early warning system for COVID-19 trends, including variants, in advance of observed increases in cases or hospital admissions. While there is still much to learn about this new tool, we expect wastewater surveillance to offer important metrics for local decisions on COVID-19 precautions and help us apply vaccination and testing resources where these are needed the most.”
State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “As Omicron and other variants threaten the well-being of our communities, I applaud Governor Hochul for using all the resources necessary to continue New York State’s vigilance in preventing the spread of COVID-19. This new wastewater surveillance partnership builds on the scientific progress underway and will help ensure that additional information is available to support the State’s ongoing efforts to protect public health.”
Epidemiologist and Associate Professor of Public Health at Syracuse University Dr. David Larsen said, “Establishing wastewater surveillance in every county throughout the state will give us better understanding of COVID-19 transmission. This system will help the public and policymakers better respond to the pandemic.”
This initiative builds on last year’s successful state pilot of monitoring wastewater in selected communities and expands the program into a statewide wastewater surveillance network. In partnership with Syracuse University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the wastewater surveillance network will enhance the State’s nation-leading testing efforts to monitor COVID-19 presence in participating municipalities, establish the baseline level of virus and identify those communities experiencing an increase. This will complement other state testing and surveillance efforts to better understand the risk of COVID-19 transmission throughout the state and target public health resources.
At least 20 counties have participated in wastewater surveillance to date, with test results providing evidence of virus presence in communities that are home to more than 2 million New York residents. New York City has also conducted wastewater surveillance throughout all five boroughs. The expansion of the statewide network will improve coordination and provide an opportunity for greater participation from additional municipalities.
State Senator Rachel May said, "The world-class researchers at Syracuse University and its sister institutions continue to prove what a tremendous resource they are to Central New Yorkers and the whole state. Expanding wastewater surveillance will help us be better prepared and stay one step ahead of this pandemic. I am glad to see the Department of Health and SU partnering on this important effort."
State Senator John Mannion said, “As a world-class center of research and innovation, Syracuse University has been the ideal partner for New York State’s advanced wastewater surveillance to monitor COVID-19. I’ve sponsored legislation and advocated for expanded wastewater surveillance across the state to leverage our elite colleges and universities to help protect public health. I commend Governor Kathy Hochul for building on this successful initiative and Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud for his continued contributions to Central New York.”
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried said, "New York has been a national leader in COVID-19 research, from the Wadsworth Lab to our medical centers and universities. Wastewater surveillance is a valuable epidemiological tool in the fight against COVID, and I commend the Health Department, Department of Environmental Conservation, and their academic partners for this important initiative."
Assemblymember William Magnarelli said, “Expansion of COVID-19 surveillance in wastewater at SU is a proactive, non-invasive measure to try and stay ahead of the ever changing pandemic. The university has a large population, which includes students from many other countries. Surveillance of the wastewater is another step in tracking this virus as we continue to confront it with vaccinations and mask wearing.”
Assemblymember Pam Hunter said, “Wastewater COVID surveillance allows for a non-invasive way to monitor the rate of cases in a region. This data can inform our public health policy and get resources to the regions that need them most before health systems become overextended. This innovative approach by the Department of Health and Syracuse University will certainly save lives and help reduce future surges.”
Wastewater testing provides representative information on COVID-19 status for communities including identification of the virus not seen by clinical testing alone. Last year’s efforts demonstrated that wastewater surveillance can detect virus at levels equivalent to 10 cases per 100,000 population and can provide 3 to 5 days advanced warning that COVID-19 cases are increasing.
Testing wastewater for COVID-19 is a cost-effective, non-invasive, and unbiased method of monitoring trends in virus at the community level. In addition, wastewater samples can be collected at different locations within the sewer system, providing valuable information within neighborhoods, or even in individual buildings - for example, college dormitories. The state wastewater surveillance network will link into the Center for Disease Control’s National Wastewater Surveillance System that has been initiated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state wastewater surveillance network will initially focus on COVID-19 in response to the pandemic, but in the future, it will remain a vital public health resource. Research has shown that different variants of the virus that cause COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater. Also, wastewater surveillance can be scaled faster than clinical diagnostic surveillance, allowing the network to quickly provide information should a variant or other infectious disease be detected that threatens public health. Finally, wastewater surveillance can be used to inform other public health challenges, including providing estimates of opioid use as well as trends in antimicrobial resistance.