Somerville will track COVID-19 in human waste

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Somerville is turning to the sewers to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The city is launching a new community wastewater testing program to provide early detection of coronavirus hotspots.

“The beauty about this is it gives us information anywhere from one to two weeks earlier than we would get from traditional testing,” Mayor Joe Curtatone said.

People infected with COVID-19 can shed the virus in their urine and feces before they show symptoms or get tested, Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress said in statement Thursday.

“To aid in early detection, experts including the CDC have called for wastewater testing as an early warning system. It can be especially helpful for vulnerable populations and targeted locations such as senior care facilities or college campus areas,” Kress said.

The city will draw wastewater from ten sites every week, focusing on high risk areas like assisted-living facilities, public housing and schools, Curtatone said.

Somerville partnered with Northeastern University and Stantec, the city’s on-call engineering firm for sewer work and design.

“Some studies have suggested 4 to 7 days, some have suggested even longer that you can detect this virus before these cases show up in the clinic,” Dr. Ameet Pinto, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University’s Department of Civil and Environmental said.

Wastewater testing isn’t new. It was once used to detect the polio virus, Dr. Pinto said.

But it’s still a strange concept to explain to someone.

“It’s important to know people’s privacy will be maintained. We’re not going to be outside your home testing the waste water coming out of your home,” Curtatone said.

“We either utilize these types of tools and control the virus or it’s going to control us,” he said.

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