Worcester County

COVID-19 taking an unexpected turn this spring

WORCESTER, Mass. — At the Upper Blackstone Clean Water treatment plant, levels of COVID-19 RNA in wastewater this spring are similar to levels seen last spring — but with one critical  difference.

“They were trending down,” said Plant Director Karla Sangrey. “While they’re kind of trending up now — although not really fast. And I think we just don’t know.”

Don’t know, that is, what direction the pandemic may take next. Some assumed warmer weather would quell virus activity — if only because exposures would be reduced. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening. The positive test rate in Massachusetts is nudging towards seven percent and hospitalizations continue to increase.

The wastewater data suggests the upward trend isn’t over.

“Wastewater is usually a little bit ahead of when people are actually getting sick and getting positive tests,” Sangrey said.

Tim Loftus, Lab and Pretreatment Manager at the Upper Blackstone plant, said current readings of COVID-19 RNA are in the 1.5 million copies per liter range.

“Back in January, it was up around twelve million,” he said. “But that was a spike. And we hope that the same spike isn’t happening again.”

It’s hard to know — because the wastewater data has been somewhat inconsistent this spring.

“After that initial (January) spike it was kind of bouncing around the bottom near zero,” Loftus said. “And now it’s starting to bounce up and down. 500,000... a million... then 700,000, a million-and-a-half.”

“Is it going to go into another surge?” Sangrey said. “That’s not our business. We’re just on the ground getting some raw data from everyone who uses the sewer system.”

And one of the benefits of that raw data is that it picks up unreported cases.

“A lot of the home tests don’t get reported to the CDC,” Loftus said. “So you really don’t know from that testing how many people are infected. But through wastewater, even if you don’t feel the symptoms, it still shows up in the wastewater.”

Although Massachusetts is among the most highly vaccinated states, recent data from the UK suggests current vaccines lose effectiveness fairly quickly when confronted by Omicron and its subvariants. That may help explain why COVID-19 is rising this spring.

The CDC has now designated half the state’s counties as high risk for community transmission, including Worcester, Suffolk, Middlesex, Franklin, Norfolk, Berkshire and Barnstable. Six counties — Dukes, Essex, Hampden, Hampshire, Nantucket and Plymouth — are rated as “medium risk.” Only Bristol County is considered “low risk.”

Barnstable County’s “red” designation moved the National Park Service to reintroduce indoor mask mandates at its Visitor Centers on the Cape Cod National Seashore.

“I think it’s great. Because I don’t want to get Covid,” said Nancy Ortiz of Brewster.

Bruce LeBlanc works as a volunteer at one of the centers. “It’s certainly safer for me as a representative that’s in there greeting people to know that I have some protection,” he said. “I think everybody’s frustrated with the fact that there are continued outbreaks.”

That would describe Dave Bennett’s state of mind. He was visiting the Cape Tuesday from Westborough.

“You get the feeling we were getting close to the end and now it seems like we’re falling back into the same old routine, requiring everyone to wear masks again,” Bennett said. “I don’t like it. It’s just something we have to deal with. We’re gonna have to live with it for a while, unfortunately.”

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