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Town wastewater monitoring moves online

By JAYMIE L. WHITE Special to The Appalachian

STEPHENVILLE – Monitoring the wastewater in order to observe the prevalence of disease in communities is a field that is always evolving. One of the newer tools that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is using is designed to find early warnings that the COVID-19 virus is present in communities across the province.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change has set up a website and dashboard available on the government’s website where information about the COVID-19 Wastewater Initiative is provided. The initiative started in Feb. 2021 and involved a partnership between the Department of Health and Community Services, Memorial University, and the City of St. John’s. It can provide early warning signs of both positive and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 while providing important health guidance to the public.

Bernard Davis, Minister of Environment and Climate Change said the new online platforms are important tools to keep data readily available to the public.

“This is another step in the development of this unique initiative that alerts officials to the presence and potential transmission of COVID-19 in a community,” said Davis. “I encourage everyone to visit the website to view the COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Strategy and access the information being collected through this initiative.”

Since February, the program has grown to include nine additional communities across the province including St. John’s, Paradise, Conception Bay South, Happy-Valley Goose Bay, Corner Brook, Deer Lake, Stephenville, and Clarenville. More communities are intended to be added to this list in the future.

Lynn Robinson, Media Relations Manager for Environment and Climate Change, Municipal and Provincial Affairs Newfoundland and Labrador, said that thus far 127 wastewater samples from across the province have been analyzed.

“Of these, three have come back as positive detections for COVID-19, and 29 have come back as trace detections. To date, one sample from Stephenville has been analyzed and the result was negative,” said Robinson.

In order to maintain the collaborative work present in this area of research, samples that are collected are analyzed by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg and therefore costs nothing for the provincial government.

Dr. John Haggie, Minister of Health and Community Services said this initiative has provided a valuable partnership opportunity between his department and the public health team.

“This initiative and its expansion to seven sites across the province will assist in the early detection of the virus in our communities,” said Haggie. “This means Public Health will be able to act quickly to identify the possibility of COVID-19 in a particular area, supporting early detection and minimizing the risk of spread. The new website and dashboard will be a good resource that will help inform the public and our partners, as well as showcase the research happening on this front in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The plan has numerous actions that will take place in the short term and hopefully be completed within the next six months. These actions include interpreting and communicating results to the public when appropriate, comparing data received to cases in the communities, and modelling wastewater trends with the purpose of possible predictions.

Each community is scheduled to be sampled once a week except for St. John’s, which will be sampled twice per week. Robinson said more communities have just been added.

“Two additional communities (Labrador City and Wabush) were sampled and those samples have been shipped for testing,” said Robinson. “All communities included in the program have now been sampled with the exception of Grand Falls-Windsor, as they are currently involved in a labour dispute. Results from wastewater sampling have helped inform public health decision making, and sampling will continue for the foreseeable future.”

Data will be consistently updated on the Wastewater Surveillance for COVID-19 results dashboard for residents to keep an eye on their community.

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