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Scientists are monitoring New York’s sewers, hoping to identify coronavirus clusters.

2 min read

New York City’s sewers, whose lore has spawned films, children’s books and fantastical tales of alligator infestation, have now seized a role in the pandemic: Scientists are tracking outbreaks by monitoring the smelly, gray effluent that flows through underground pipes in hopes of identifying coronavirus clusters days before they appear through patient testing.

The undertaking, which has ramped up in recent weeks, has mirrored efforts across the country to surveil waterways for viral components, flushed down toilets by infected Americans who are excreting it in feces.

Rising traces of the virus were detected in New York in recent months in wastewater samples scooped from sewage treatment plants near coronavirus hot spots in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. But now, scientists say, increases are being seen citywide, as infection rates reach their highest levels since the spring.

This kind of wastewater testing is especially challenging in New York, where 7,500 miles of pipes handle 1.3 billion to three billion gallons of wastewater a day, depending on rainfall levels, making it nearly impossible for the scientists to pinpoint exactly which neighborhoods the viral remnants are actually coming from.

This is one reason that city health officials say person-by-person testing is still the best tool to track the virus. On Tuesday, the seven-day average positive test rate was 4.94 percent, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Monitoring the sewers is “just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and we are still trying to figure out where it fits,” said Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health. “It is absolutely worth pursuing.”

The samples are all analyzed at Newtown Creek, the wastewater treatment plant in North Brooklyn that is the city’s largest and is notable for its huge, gleaming digestion tanks that break down organic materials in sewage.

A microbiology lab that was long used to measure bacteria in wastewater, as well as viruses like the poliovirus and norovirus, was expanded to include the coronavirus analyses.

Sewer work is not glamorous, but the department’s employees take pride in maintaining a system that most New Yorkers know little about yet rely heavily upon. Michael Radano, a deputy chief at the plant, said he was a third-generation worker for the department.

Vincent Sapienza, commissioner of the Environmental Protection Department, chuckled and said, “He’s got sewage running through his veins.”

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