Wastewater testing could act as early warning signal for COVID-19 outbreak

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In a pilot program, the City of Scranton will test wastewater samples for signs of coronavirus

SCRANTON, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — As COVID-19 cases surge throughout Pennsylvania, the city of Scranton is turning to an unusual source to track the spread of the virus. It is having wastewater tested.

When it comes to wastewater, Pennsylvania American Water typically processes and treats 25 million gallons of it per day at its South Scranton facility before discharging it into the Lackawanna River. But that wastewater is serving a different purpose lately.

“I have two samples: one for Keyser Valley Pump Station and one for Middle Street Pump Station that will be shipped out on ice in a cooler,” said Tara Roche, Pennsylvania American Water.

The samples, taken about an hour earlier, will be delivered promptly to a biochemistry lab in Syracuse, New York to test for genetic material linked to novel coronavirus.

It is part of a pilot project involving the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania American Water and California-based Betterment Health. Findings in those wastewater samples could serve as an early warning signal of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“It is not affecting everybody the same way and this both helps the cities, the states and the people to allocate resources accordingly and, you know, be prepared,” Ahmed “Eddie” Qureshi, CEO, Bettermeant Health said.

“Testing wastewater has been successful in places like Houston. You know, there are no guarantees here but I just feel we have to do everything we can,” said Mayor Paige Cognetti.

Mayor Cognetti says the reason the two pumping station sites were chosen is because they represent residential population-dense areas although they have not ruled out other sites being added.

She sees a big possible benefit from the program for medical facilities within the city.

“You would be able to potentially identify that an outbreak was coming and it looks like more people have COVID than they realize. You would be able to get the hospitals ready for that and be able to mitigate that surge at the hospitals,” Mayor Cognetti said.

“We can go from just absorbing and collecting information to sort of moving towards action,” said Qureshi.

An essentially old practice of testing wastewater with a new purpose.

“We have seen stories about this process happening in different areas of the country. We know a lot of universities are doing it to pinpoint outbreaks and if it is something that can benefit our community we are happy to be a part of it,” said Susan Turcmanovich, External Affairs Manager, Pennsylvania American Water.

The waste water testing pilot program is free to the city of Scranton.

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