October 24, 2021

City joins wastewater coronavirus test

Process allows new way to track COVID-19 infections using RNA material

Metro Creative Graphics

Cortland County has a new way to track novel coronavirus infections, thanks to a Syracuse University program that tests wastewater for coronavirus RNA.

Two basic types of coronavirus tests exist — one that tests whether you now have the virus, and another that tests for antibodies, or whether you’ve ever been exposed to the virus.

But there’s another type of test that looks for coronavirus RNA in wastewater.

The city of Cortland’s wastewater treatment plant is now participating in the program that runs this kind of test, although results were not available this morning.

David Larsen, the environmental epidemiologist who runs the program, said the test will provide the county with a glimpse into the future, because it picks up indications a week beforehand of infected people who have not yet shown symptoms, as well as those who will be infected but remain asymptomatic.

“It’s really an early warning system,” he said.

The test will also pick up some current and past infections, but for the most part, the numbers it generates are of future infections, Larsen said.

Cayuga, Onondaga, Tompkins, Oswego, Warren, Saratoga and Westchester counties are participating in the program, and Larsen has requested that the state Health Department expand the program statewide.

The program is not unique — Larsen is aware of several around the country, including programs run by Yale and MIT.

Bruce Adams, the city’s superintendent of wastewater, said results provide a picture of the virus’s spread in the city and beyond, because the wastewater treatment plant serves not just the city but also the village of Homer, the village of McGraw and much of the town of Cortlandville.

That’s between 55 and 65% of the county’s residents.

Adams first got the idea for the city to participate in this type of testing after reading about it in news reports. Once he found out about the Syracuse program, he checked with the city Common Council to get the approval to participate. It gave him the green light May 19.

Adams said he will continue to send out weekly samples. Larsen said he hopes to begin offering biweekly testing in the near future.