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NY Prioritizes Wastewater Surveillance Amid Fears of Monkeypox & Polio 

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By:  Hellen Zaboulani

New York is paying closer attention to what’s in the waste water.

As reported by Crain’s NY, millions of dollars are being invested into a wastewater surveillance network, as the city and state try to use the waste as an indication of where Covid-19, the flu, monkeypox and polio are circulating.  On Friday, the government revealed that data found utilizing the new infrastructure found that the polio virus was in Orange County as early as May.  The wastewater surveillance centralized database was developed in Spring 2020, during the pandemic’s peak, by experts at Syracuse University, which partnered with SUNY Upstate Medical University and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

As part of the project, the researchers used a $150,000 state grant to create a database, which has information regarding the population that feeds into a given sewage catchment area, thereby helping researchers to link the region’s wastewater data with the demographics and into context.  “Surveillance data is only useful if it improves understanding,” said David Larsen, an epidemiologist at Syracuse University who spearheaded the project. “It doesn’t necessarily need to lead to an intervention or policy shift, but it needs to increase our understanding of what is happening.”

The city has also set up a public-private partnership that has been tracing Covid-19 in wastewater.  NYC Health + Hospitals’ bio-surveillance program began in February at Elmhurst Hospital.  As per Crain’s, samples are collected weekly from ten of its hospitals, and an 11th hospital will be added in mid-September. This week, the program will also begin testing for monkeypox and polio.

Leopolda Silvera, global health deputy for the Global Health Institute at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, said the wastewater can indicate traces of a virus 10 to 14 days before the patient even starts showing symptoms. This gives the hospital system a heads-up advantage, where they can prepare and proactively redistribute staff and resources to hospitals which will experience upticks in the virus, she said.  The sequencing process also identifies genetic material in the virus so as to determine which variant it is, and to detect new mutations.

The state too is making strides.  Larsen and Syracuse University want the network to expand, to include 200 municipal treatment plants.  Cort Ruddy, a state Department of Health spokesman, said Syracuse University just received nearly $6 million more in grant funding to continue the work.  Last year, a $904,000 state grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowed the Syracuse-led partnership to expand its network, so that each county of NY has at least one wastewater treatment plant.

The day-to-day testing operations are handled by SUNY Buffalo, Stony Brook University, the joint Genesee and Orleans County Public Health Departments’ laboratory and Syracuse-based company Quadrant Biosciences.  As per Crain’s, Quadrant was granted a $150,000 state contract to conduct the testing, as per records from the comptroller’s office.  Besides for grant funding, Gov. Kathy Hochul earmarked $5 million annually for wastewater surveillance in her latest budget. Larsen said he hopes the continued government investment can empower experts to keep the system running for whatever pandemics may arise in the future.

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