As the COVID-19 positivity rate rises across the five boroughs, city scientists are working to get the lowdown on the virus, straight from New Yorkers’ poop.
Unlike many municipalities, New York is testing wastewater for the coronavirus in an effort to trace — and stop — the spread. But experts on sewage monitoring say the city could be using the technology to do more to contain the virus.
Microbiologists working for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection test samples taken twice a week by DEP staff at 14 wastewater treatment plants.
At the plant at Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the largest facility by volume in the city, sampling means walking down four stories to large concrete basins that open to a river of raw sewage.
From there, a worker lowers two empty bottles — held securely inside a contraption made of cut PVC pipe, heavy bolts and a long rope — into the smelly stream, waits for them to fill and hoists them back out to deliver to the DEP’s on-site laboratory.
Still, some experts emphasize those samples are mere drops taken from a waste ocean. Each of New York’s treatment plants treat sewage from more people than the entirety of many smaller cities.
DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza noted the Newtown Creek plant collects the waste of about a million New Yorkers. Even the city’s smallest facilities handle “a couple hundred thousand,” he told THE CITY.
“The data we collect isn’t that granular. We can’t say it’s a specific neighborhood or a specific block where things may be happening,” he said. “Right now, we’re using the data, sharing it with the health department to say, ‘Hey, there may be something there.’”
At that point, the DEP data hopefully points the health experts in the right direction to then use results from individual COVID tests to further monitor the virus, he added.