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Levels of COVID-19 in Boston-area waste water increase ahead of holiday season

Free rapid COVID-19 tests are available

The Deer Island waste water treatment plant in Boston. Levels of coronavirus in Boston-area waste water have risen, and the data can alert officials to the prevalence of the virus in a given community.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Public health officials are distributing rapid COVID-19 tests and urging people to receive an updated vaccine as levels of coronavirus in Boston-area waste water rise ahead of the holiday season.

Boston Public Health Commission officials said they will hand out 10,000 free testing kits at community centers and other distribution hubs across the city.

As of Nov. 15, coronavirus levels rose 93 percent over the previous 14 days, the commission said.

“Respiratory viruses, like COVID-19, the flu and RSV, will continue to pose a challenge this holiday season,” Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Boston’s public health commissioner, said in a statement. “We are giving out test kits and other resources to ensure that residents have the tools they need to stay safe and healthy.”


By determining the number of SARS-CoV-2 RNA copies per milliliter of waste water, officials can monitor the prevalence of the virus in a given community. For the southern section of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the seven-day average count reached 596 copies per milliliter on Nov. 16, up from 360 on Nov. 9. For the MWRA’s northern section, the seven-day average count reached 433, up from 263.

Starting Monday, every home in the United States became eligible to order four additional free at-home tests — for a total of eight per household — from the federal government at

“Residents should do their best to keep their own stock of test kits to ensure at-home testing is available throughout the holiday season, and to test before attending a gathering if they’re feeling ill,” health commission officials said.

They also urged people to get the latest vaccine shot.

“Staying up to date on COVID-19, RSV, and flu vaccines is an important strategy to reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization, especially during the holiday season when colder temperatures and more time spent indoors with loved ones increases the risk of getting sick, as well as possibly passing along an illness to an older adult or family member who could be at increased risk of severe infection,” BPHC officials said in a statement.


Epidemiologist Bill Hanage, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement that the recent spike has been noticeable.

“Both the south and north systems recently showed a pronounced jump in the wastewater covid indicators,” said Hanage, who also serves as associate director of the Chan School’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. “While wastewater data are quite noisy, the fact we see it in both suggests that it reflects a real burst of transmission. However more recent measurements have returned to what counts for normal.”

That said, Hanage continued, “each year since 2020 Thanksgiving has been followed by spikes in wastewater and cases. And we can expect that to happen again this year as the virus gets introduced to new networks through holiday travel and gatherings. That is not going to have anywhere near the dire consequences we saw in the past thanks to vaccination, but older people remain at risk from covid just like other respiratory infections!”

To ensure “you don’t bring an unwelcome guest to your thanksgiving dinner, you can use a rapid antigen test,” said Hanage, who’s also a scientific adviser to Biobot, the Cambridge company tracking the waste water data. “And naturally, if you feel unwell and have symptoms of any respiratory infection, try not to share them with your grandparents.”


COVID-19 and flu vaccinations are available at the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury and at Boston City Hall. The Bolling building is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. It will be closed on Thursday, Nov. 23, and Friday, Nov. 24, and will resume normal hours of operation on Nov. 25.

The City Hall location is open Mondays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. On Wednesday, Nov. 22, it will only be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Normal hours of operation will resume Monday.

Health officials said walk-ins are welcome and no proof of insurance is needed. But individuals may be asked about their insurance status for record-keeping purposes.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.