Boston’s wastewater suggests a surge in coronavirus infections

  • October 27, 2020

By Kim Bellware

The number of new coronavirus cases has been on the rise in the Boston area since mid-October, and the data is showing up not only in health dashboards, but also in the local wastewater.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has been analyzing wastewater samples to track the level of coronavirus genetic material as a way of measuring community spread. As of Thursday, the MWRA showed levels of viral RNA not seen since the previous peak in mid-April; the most recent upturn started in early October.

The wastewater samples are taken from the MWRA’s Deer Island Treatment Plant, which serves both the northern and southern greater Boston area as part of a pilot program in partnership with the Cambridge lab Biobot Analytics, which is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Biobot notes on the MWRA’s website that the wastewater tests are “an evolving science” but useful to public health officials for tracking trends.

According to the MWRA’s data, the growing presence of coronavirus material in Boston’s wastewater has been several days ahead of the curve of Suffolk County’s number of confirmed cases; in mid-October, the seven-day average of new single-day confirmed cases was in the low hundreds and was at 150 as of Tuesday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

During the pandemic, wastewater analysis has become a valuable tool for tracking where a possible outbreak is growing. Canada, Finland and Hong Kong are among the countries that have been monitoring sewage to detect traces of the virus, which can show up in fecal matter days before a person infected with the coronavirus may show symptoms.

In the United States, college campuses in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere have been testing wastewater from dorms to monitor on-campus outbreaks. In August, the University of Arizona credited the wastewater testing strategy with helping school officials quickly identify on-campus infections and move to quarantine students, potentially preventing a larger outbreak.

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