WATERTOWN — Officials at the Jefferson County Public Health Service want to expand their wastewater COVID-19 testing program to get a clearer picture of cases of COVID-19 in the county.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators Health and Human Services committee, JCPHS director Ginger B. Hall told legislators the testing program is one of the most important aspects of the county’s response to COVID-19, because it serves as an early-warning system.
“It does project for us, seven to 14 days, that we’re going to see a rise in cases,” she said. “So far, it’s been right on track.”
As K-12 public schools welcome students back in the coming week, Mrs. Hall said she would like to expand the program into other communities in Jefferson County, specifically where they can capture more data on schools.
“Two areas I want to target is the Thousand Islands and Carthage, to get different areas of the county,” Mrs. Hall said.
Mrs. Hall said as the service expands testing, grant money is available to cover the additional costs. Stephen Jennings, public health planner with the JCPHS, said each test costs the county $200.
The Carthage test would cover everyone connected to the public sewer system, but the Thousand Islands test would be specifically for the Thousand Islands Middle and High School campus.
According to Mr. Jennings, Carthage is still negotiating with the county to begin testing, and the Thousand Islands Central School District has agreed to testing, but a date to begin has not been set.
In the Thousand Islands and Carthage areas, local wastewater maintenance workers will collect the samples and send them to the laboratory for testing on JCPHS’s behalf. The results would be given to the public health service and communicated with the local communities.
Steven Jennings, public health planner with the JCPHS, said there are no solid plans to expand beyond Carthage, the Thousand Islands school and the city of Watertown, but the service is looking to add more municipalities with schools connected to their wastewater systems in the future.
Wastewater testing for COVID-19 began last year, when Upstate Medical University and Quadrant Biosciences developed a method to test a sample of municipal wastewater and quantify how much the COVID-19 virus had spread in the community. Jefferson County was among the first counties in the country to begin using the program, and paid for one weekly test of the city of Watertown’s wastewater.
Mrs. Hall said Tuesday that the county had expanded the testing program to include another location in the city of Watertown’s wastewater treatment system, which catches water from the Black River and Fort Drum area.
On Tuesday, the Jefferson County Health and Human Services committee voted to authorize a transfer of $17,500 between accounts for the county public health service to pay for continued wastewater testing for the city of Watertown.
The director was asked by a committee member what the data is used for — once it’s established a surge in COVID-19 cases is coming, what does the JCPHS do with that information, and what actions are taken?
Mrs. Hall said the JCPHS typically will push an awareness campaign when they see a case surge is coming, pushing for mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and especially vaccination, which remains as the single-best way to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19.
Vaccination is especially effective in keeping people from developing serious symptoms when infected with the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, which is much more deadly in unvaccinated people than the original COVID-19 strains from last year.
“It also allows us to work with other schools or communities to talk about what other strategies they can do to mitigate transmission,” she said.
The JCPHS has begun sharing wastewater testing data with Fort Drum, area hospital system CEOs, neighboring county health departments and BOCES representatives.
The most recent testing data, from Monday, indicates the city of Watertown has a quantifiable level of COVID-19 in its wastewater. That’s the highest rating on the four-level scale wastewater is rated on. A test from Aug. 26 showed the city had a detectable, but not quantifiable level of COVID-19 in its wastewater, which is the third level on the scale.