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Boston to set up 11 waste water testing sites to increase COVID-19 detection

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Boston's public health commissioner.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With COVID-19 levels in waste water rising in the region, officials in Boston have partnered with vendors to set up 11 waste water testing sites across the city, the leader of the Boston Public Health Commission said Monday.

“We will be sampling these sites weekly to determine viral concentration in waste water locally,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the city’s public health commissioner, said during a City Council meeting. “And we’ll also be able to conduct surveillance regarding new variants.”

The city is partnering with BioBot, which tracks COVID-19 levels in waste water in Eastern Massachusetts for the state, and Flow Assessment on the testing initiative.

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With broader COVID-19 testing declining “significantly” across Boston, “we need to understand transmission and spread within our communities,” Ojikutu said.

The city has been receiving information that is aggregated from Boston and 22 other locales. The Boston testing sites have been set up “because we want to really understand what’s happening in our neighborhoods,” Ojikutu said.

City officials are using $3.9 million in federal funding to pay for the project.

“The plan is to use [this] data for planning and intervention development,” Ojikutu said, adding that officials believe they’ll be able to publicly share the data soon.

It’s possible the city could also test waste water for other viruses in the future, she said.

“We are in discussions with the CDC and with BioBot about other biopathogens, as well as potentially opioids,” Ojikutu said. “That’s another utilization of waste water surveillance.”

Coronavirus levels in Eastern Massachusetts waste water have been rising recently. The data can be an early warning signal, detecting changes in the number of COVID-19 infections before people are tested and the results reported.

COVID-19 cases have risen every fall and winter since the start of the pandemic but never as dramatically as last year, when the arrival of the Omicron variant triggered unprecedented rates of illness and hospitalizations. It’s too early to tell whether the new waste water numbers presage a significant, prolonged spike, experts said.

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The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority reports numbers for both the southern and northern sections of its system. The southern section includes parts of Newton and Brookline as well as Framingham, Ashland, and Stoughton. The northern section stretches north from Boston to Wilmington.

The testing determines the number of SARS-CoV-2 RNA copies per milliliter of waste water.

In the northern MWRA section, the seven-day average count of the virus reached a measure of 759 on Nov. 29. The number had been as high as 8,644 in January and as low as around 100 in March.

In the southern section, the seven-day average count was higher on Tuesday — 937. The numbers for that region had been as high as 11,446 last January before falling below 100 in March. The last time numbers for both sections were this high was in late October.

Over the past two weeks, COVID-19 cases in Boston have increased by 14 percent while hospitalizations increased by 24 percent, according to Boston Public Health Commission data released Friday.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.