I-Team: South Hadley officials say the cost of testing sewage for COVID-19 is well worth it

I-Team

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass (WWLP) – Since nearly the start of the pandemic, South Hadley has been apart of a nationwide COVID-19 study of the town’s wastewater. Town officials say the cost of the study is well worth it.

On a cold afternoon in late January, Melissa LaBonte gave the 22News I-Team a tour of the South Hadley Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s where the town’s sewage is processed and broken down until it looks more like regular water. That water is what South Hadley has been sending off to be tested for COVID-19 since the beginning of April.

“An infected person will shed viral material through their stool,” Melissa LaBonte, of the South Hadley Wastewater Treatment Plant said. “This material can be shed by both symptomatic, asymptomatic, and pre-symptomatic people.”

Sewage testing over time can provide trend data that can complement other means of surveillance, like people getting tested for the virus. The goal is to help inform public health decision-making. For example, when best to open up schools or when to stop wearing a mask.

“It was a good tool to give us extra data especially when we didn’t have a lot of knowledge on COVID,” Christopher Bouchard, director of Public Works said.

Bouchard told the 22News I-Team that South Hadley is one of the only towns in western Massachusetts participating in this study. South Hadley pays Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics at MIT, the company conducting the study, around $1,000 a test.

Biobot Sewage Treatment Reports

Testing happens twice a month. The latest report online is dated January 20, 2021 which indicates an estimate of 20 new cases per day.

This number is derived from Biobot’s latest proprietary case model, leveraging thousands of samples analyzed for Covid-19. For context, USAFacts reports 58 new cases on this sampling date and an average of 55.7 cases per day for the past 7 days in Hampshire County, MA.

Biobot

South Hadley Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said grant money helped pay for testing in the beginning, but now it’s taxpayer-funded. So far, the town has paid Biobot Analytics a little more than $14,000.

“When you consider it gave one household more confidence and data and use that data to convince them to abide by the rules, the cost of the outbreak they could cause if we don’t convince them would far exceed $14,000,” Sullivan said.

Biobot Analytics has been working with more than 400 communities throughout the country, mapping COVID-19 concentrations. Now that people are being vaccinated, South Hadley is hoping the wastewater testing will also help determine whether those vaccines are working.

The study is slated to continue through June 30, 2021.

COVID-19 cases in South Hadley

As of Tuesday, there are 866 confirmed cases, 53 probable cases and a total of 41 deaths in South Hadley. Residents can call the town’s vaccine hotline at 413-650-1021 for vaccine information and distribution.

Massachusetts residents who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine can schedule through the Northampton Health Department for the two new regional sites in Northampton and Amherst.

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