AUGUSTA — What Augusta residents flush down the toilet could provide important information about the prevalence of the coronavirus in the area as officials make public health decisions during the ongoing pandemic.

The Greater Augusta Utility District, using Keep Maine Healthy funding obtained by the city of Augusta, began collecting samples of sewage this week at its wastewater treatment plant.

Officials will send those samples to a Massachusetts company pioneering efforts to test for traces of the coronavirus in sewage collected from treatment plants.

If successful, the project could provide potentially valuable information about the presence and prevalence of the coronavirus in sewage from the area.

Phyllis Rand, water quality coordinator for the Greater Augusta Utilities District, shows a sample of wastewater Thursday that will be sent out for COVID-19 testing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

That data could provide information on how widespread the virus is in the area’s population, and be valuable as local officials make decisions, such as when to reopen public facilities and whether to allow students to return to the classroom.

“It could provide interesting and valuable information about how prevalent it is in the community which will aid all kinds of decision making, going forward,” said Keith Luke, deputy development director for the city and the city’s representative to the Greater Augusta Utility District’s board of trustees, who wrote the grant application.

“If we see the virus load number is constant, and then there’s a spike, it will be good to know we need to increase our vigilance, which could play into a number of decisions at the local level. As municipal leaders continue to make important decisions regarding reopening businesses, civic and related functions, this testing data on how the virus is behaving in our community will provide an important tool.”

A sample of wastewater that the Greater Augusta Utilities District will send out for COVID-19 testing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Most data on the spread of the coronavirus now comes from individual testing, which provides limited data because not many people are being tested for the virus.

Research now underway seeks to test for the presence of the coronavirus in wastewater. The lab to which Augusta’s samples will be sent, Biobot, is working to correlate that to provide an estimation of how many people in the area might be infected.

The virus is shed in the feces of those with COVID-19 and, thus, makes its way into sewer systems. Biobot analyzes sewage to determine the presence of infected individuals and estimate the number of cases. These analyses can help officials take action to contain new outbreaks.

Luke learned of the project after hearing about it on National Public Radio. He approached Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, about having the testing done in Augusta, but at some $1,200 per sample, they agreed the cost was great.

They shelved the idea until Luke learned of grants that will now pay the $24,000 cost of weekly testing from now until the end of October.

“It might help serve as an indicator of a regional populations’ exposure to COVID,” Tarbuck said. “So, it’s interesting and we’re not paying for it. We might find, in future pandemics, this kind of testing has some real merit. So the science geek in me likes this a lot.

“We’re going to post the results online, so anybody can see them. Hopefully, that will help people with difficult decisions to make by providing better information.”

The grants are from the federal CARES Act, administered by the Maine Department of Health and Human Service’s Keep Maine Healthy program. The city received about $155,000 from the program.

Other coronavirus-related expenditures to be funded through the grant include efforts to communicate educational information about the pandemic to local residents, purchase cleaning supplies and buy platforms for outside dining.

While the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention was not directly consulted by city officials seeking the grant, its spokesperson, Robert Long, said, “Maine CDC welcomes all science-based efforts to learn more about how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads in Maine.”

He said other utility districts in Maine are also participating in similar research.

Phyllis Rand, water quality coordinator for Greater Augusta Utility District, collected the first sample Wednesday. The district already takes samples regularly for other testing, so Rand just had to pour some of that sample into tubes from Biobot. The samples are being stored on ice until they can be sent to the lab for testing.

Rand said the testing for COVID-19 is similar to how testing was done for polio decades ago.

She said a potential problem with the current testing is methods have not been standardized so different labs might run their tests in different ways. That could make it unclear whether results from different labs will provide an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

The Greater Augusta Utilities District water treatment plant Thursday July 23, 2020 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

She said regulators, who are looking closely at the testing as a way to track the spread of the coronavirus, are looking to standardize methods.

Luke said he is eager to receive the results, particularly as more come in and trends may start to emerge. He said it could turn out there are not enough traces of coronavirus in the samples to provide meaningful data, which could indicate a relatively low number of cases in the area.

Either way, the wastewater testing is expected to provide a broader picture of COVID-19’s presence than what is available by testing individuals.

“It covers the service area of our district,” Luke said. “It provides a snapshot that isn’t limited to subsets of people who’ve been tested for one reason or another.”

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