You may have heard that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was working on ways to test wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 — the respiratory pandemic that’s gripped the world over the last two years. Several Vermont towns took part in a pilot program with the CDC, including Brighton, Springfield and St. Albans.
The city of Burlington was also reportedly testing wastewater, but it was not involved in the federal program.
The CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System first launched in September 2020. According to information posted on the CDC’s website, the agency began enlisting municipalities across the country to take part in the program. There were approximately 900 testing sites across the country, including the ones in Vermont. The NWSS traces levels, changes and detection of SARS-COV2 viral RNA in the wastewater. People infected with COVID-19 can shed the virus (viral RNA) through their feces even if they don’t have symptoms. Therefore, the CDC feels this type of testing can serve as an early warning of community spread.
In Vermont, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Watershed Management Division helped facilitate the program. Approximately nine towns were selected. The CDC reportedly asked them to select “vulnerable communities” — those with lower vaccine rates and potentially less access to clinical testing — which meant more rural communities.
Nate Fraser, chief operator of the wastewater treatment plant for the town of Springfield, shared his town’s experiences with the program.
“The state reached out to see if we were interested in doing COVID monitoring,” he said. “We agreed to do the weekly testing.”
Fraser said the town started the program at the beginning of February, and it ended April 15. He explained in Springfield, staff members just did “grab and go” samples versus composite samples.
“Normally, for wastewater testing, we do composite testing, but due to lack of time and staff, we just did grab samples,” he said.
Fraser explained with composite testing, a machine takes samples over a 24-hour time period. The composite machine is refrigerated, and it randomly grabs samples over a 24-hour period. With grab sample testing, a staff member has to physically go out to the headwater and grab a sample.
“The composite is more representative of a 24-hour period,” he said.
Even though that’s an automated system, it takes more staff hours to bring out the equipment and set it up versus having to just grab a sample.
Fraser said the process was they’d go out and get a sample, bring it in and bottle it, complete the paperwork showing the chain of custody, clean the bottle with Clorox, package it up and send it out.
“There was a fair amount of time involved,” he admitted, adding, “We probably spent two to three hours a week extra by the grab process, packaging it and readying it for shipping.”
He said the town wasn’t compensated for participating in the COVID testing program, but the town was provided with all the necessary testing equipment.
“They provided the bottles, packaging, boxes, ice packs — everything we needed. So there was no cost to the town — except for the manpower hours,” he said.
To Fraser’s knowledge, the CDC was not the first to pilot a program of this type. He said UVM — University of Vermont — had previously done wastewater testing. During that, college students did the testing, but Fraser wasn’t involved and only heard about it.
Fraser said the results the town received were in “scientific data form.” He noted, “Other than the fact that they found COVID, I couldn’t tell you anything else.”
He shared that working with the CDC program seemed to go really smoothly.
“The relationship went well — it was pretty streamlined,” he said, adding the CDC set everything up for the town upfront — as far as having Federal Express coming to get the samples.
“It was pretty cut and dried,” he said.
Brian Willet, chief wastewater operator for the town of St. Albans, reported in a March 13, 2022, article, “Vermont Municipalities Begin CDC Wastewater COVID Testing Program With Some Hiccups,” in the VT Digger by Ethan Weinstein that at the time he first received data from the CDC he struggled with it.
Willet said he received data back after three weeks of twice weekly sampling, but interpreting the graphs and relevance of each metric wasn’t something he could easily figure out. He told VT Digger that he planned to meet with the contractor who provided the data to better understand it and how to apply it.
In Brighton, Joel Cope, town administrator, said he thought the testing began about six months ago, noting the state contacted town about participating and his response was, “Why wouldn’t we want to take part? We want that information, too.”
He said the town doesn’t have its own wastewater operators — the service is contracted out to H2O Innovations — so he wasn’t involved in the hands-on operation.
“The only thing I saw were charts that were very technical,” Cope said.
So while the CDC may be able to decipher the data, making it an early warning system, it’s clear that on the local level the data needs to be summarized in an easier-to-understand manner.
According to the CDC website, as of May 12, 2022, from the NWSS data most of the country is reporting low-moderate levels, but about 20% of the sites across the country are seeing some of the highest levels for those sites since December 2021. More than half of all sites reporting wastewater data are experiencing a modest increase. The CDC claims wastewater surveillance is a rapidly developing field, used along with other COVID-19 surveillance data.