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Wastewater tests will track COVID-19 levels in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Sewage carries the clues to warn of a possible "second wave" of COVID-19 in the city, and now the Department of Public Utilities has the tools to detect them.

Commissioner Ricardo Morales said his department purchased eight kits from Biobot Analytics that test for the virus' signature in wastewater. The company's research, which Morales noted is not yet peer-reviewed, shows that the wastewater testing can show the prevalence of coronavirus in the community before traditional swab testing, he said.

"What their research indicates is that they are able to find the presence of the virus in the community several days ahead of clinical case detection," he said. "This is good information to have in our pocket of tools to use to identify a surge or possible surge of the virus in our community."

Morales emphasized that sewage testing in no way replaces the need for clinical swab testing on individuals, but rather supplements it. Biobot was co-founded by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who studied wastewater epidemiology, according to its website. Its kits detect viral RNA in sewage and have been deployed in many U.S. cities to measure the prevalence of the virus in the community.

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"We're going to see how the virus is doing on a community level," he said. "In combination with clinical testing data, we can make better, more informed decisions on how we continue."

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Mayor Linda Tyer called wastewater testing a "very useful tool for managing the pandemic."

"We may identify increases that may be present before we even see positive cases through testing," she said.

Morales said eight tests kits were purchased for $1,200 each, with funding coming from his department's budget. He said city lab technicians will collect the wastewater samples from the treatment plant, and analysis of the samples will be completed by Biobot.

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Two of the city's test kits are being used to establish a "baseline" of the prevalence of the virus in wastewater at the Holmes Road treatment facility against which future tests will be measured, according to Morales. Wastewater flows to Holmes Road from Pittsfield and several other communities, including Lenox and Richmond.

The city is going to wait to use any of the remaining kits until closer to the start of flu season in the fall, when the wastewater tests will start happening twice a month for three months, Morales said.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.


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