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Norwich, New London part of Yale University study of COVID-19 virus in sewage

There are numerous testing stations for the coronavirus throughout the region, at hospitals, physicians’ offices, drive-up sites at senior centers and even soup kitchens. But a different type of testing is taking place daily in Norwich and New London, with samples sent to Yale University to try to detect whether a COVID-19 outbreak is coming.

Jordan Peccia, professor of environmental engineering at Yale University, is heading a state-funded study of how the COVID-19 virus detected in raw sewage could help predict whether an infection outbreak can be expected in a certain area. Similar studies across the country have yielded promising results, including one study that was able to detect a pending outbreak in a University of Arizona dormitory before students had shown any symptoms of COVID-19.

The Yale study started Aug. 3 and now includes samples from seven sewage treatment plans in Norwich, New London, Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. But a preliminary study that started March 13 with the New Haven sewage treatment plant, Peccia said last week, and was able to detect an outbreak in the city in its early stage.

“If an outbreak occurs, we may be able to see it early,” Peccia said. “It will show up in the sewage plant as soon as people start shedding the virus. (COVID-19) testing can be delayed. Reporting of test results can get delayed. We typically can see a signal in the wastewater before you see it in testing.”

New London sewage includes flow from parts of Waterford and East Lyme. The Norwich sewage treatment plant serves parts of Franklin, Sprague, Preston, Bozrah and Lisbon.

Peccia said the Yale study is global for the participating treatment plants, not isolating samples from specific parts of the participating cities and towns, as the Arizona University did by studying sewage flow from individual dorms. He thinks it would be a good idea to isolate certain segments of a city, such as a nursing home or a school.

Larry Sullivan, Norwich Public Utilities wastewater integrity manager, said at the local sewage treatment plants staff take samples every day and store the small vials of raw sewage in a refrigerated container. On Monday and Thursday mornings, a Norwich sewage plant operator takes that morning’s samples, puts it and the previous few days’ collection of vials into a small, thick foam cooler and drives to the New London plant to pick up its week’s samples. The Norwich operator then drives to the New Haven laboratory, where the samples are tested.

A team of researchers at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, including Ph.D. students and a lab tech overseen by Peccia, analyzes the samples.

Peccia has been doing research for more than 20 years on environmental pathogens in wastewater and the connection to public health issues. He has researched the possible presence of polio in wastewater and has been finding different strains of coronavirus in wastewater over the years.

In addition to early detection of an outbreak, the study also could detect when COVID-19 is declining in an area to help state and local leaders make decisions on reopening businesses, sports, schools and other activities.

Peccia said it’s important for smaller cities, such as Norwich and New London, to be included because they might not have the infrastructure in place for a major outbreak, and advance notice could help bring in state and federal assistance.

“If you have people getting sick in a smaller place, you’re pretty sure to see it in the sludge,” he said.

Peccia said the $180,000 study, funded by the state Department of Public Health, is scheduled to run through January 2021. No results have been released yet, with the study just ramping up a month into sampling. He said after the analysis, a report will be presented to DPH.

Joe Lanzafame, head of the New London Department of Public Utilities and Stormwater Authority, said the city received a call from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection asking if the city was interested in being part of the study.

Lanzafame said the city was “excited” to join the study at the start, with the first samples taken Aug. 3.

Sullivan said NPU General Manager Chris LaRose learned about the study, reached out and asked to join it, offering to transport Norwich and New London samples to New Haven if the city could be added.

The first Norwich samples were taken Aug. 12, “at the tail end” of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Three Rivers Healthcare nursing home on Crouch Avenue, Peccia said.

“This is important from a public health standpoint,” NPU spokesman Chris Riley said. “But it also shows our willingness to participate when we can be of service. This could be enormously helpful to the health of the community.”


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