For months, tests of Keene’s wastewater showed what other data did — a relatively low rate of COVID-19 spread in the city.
“Overall, we kept saying that our wastewater had been very boring for most of the semester, because we really weren’t seeing much, which was great,” said Jeanelle Boyer, a professor of public health at Keene State College, who is helping lead the collaborative project with the city.
But recently, as the number of COVID-19 cases rose in Keene, the sewage testing has also indicated increasing infections in the community.
“And we’re thinking that this ... really reflects the higher community rates that we’re starting to see in town,” Boyer said. “So we aren’t expecting these numbers to come back down, unfortunately. ... If we do see a couple more higher values [in the wastewater testing], that would reinforce the evidence that COVID-19 is, in fact, in the Keene community.”
As cases of the viral respiratory illness surge statewide, and across the country, this wastewater testing acts as another tool in Keene State’s response to the pandemic. The results of the twice-weekly testing are one of several metrics the college uses to guide its response to the pandemic.
Boyer added that she is using this spike in coronavirus cases as an opportunity to remind her students of the importance of wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing.
Over the course of the semester, the results of the wastewater testing have demonstrated the effectiveness of these sorts of measures, said Christopher Rennix, who chairs Keene State’s safety and occupational health department.
“In the beginning, it was mostly fear that drove them to wear their masks, and they did,” Rennix said of Keene State students. “And now it’s knowledge. Now they understand why they’re wearing it, because we are constantly driving that point home, that their compliance on and off campus is going to make a difference. And the graph shows it.”
Keene State posts the results of the wastewater testing weekly on its online COVID-19 dashboard. From early September through mid-October tests showed essentially non-detectable levels of COVID-19 in samples collected from two access points in the city’s sewer system — one that captures Keene State’s campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, including downtown, and another that covers the rest of the city.
A team of five Keene State professors worked closely with the city’s public works department to identify the best sample collection points. Two public works employees collect the samples twice a week, after which they are sent to a commercial lab for analysis, Boyer said. This sort of testing is possible because certain viruses, including the novel coronavirus, are shed in fecal matter.
Keene’s current process for testing sewage samples for COVID-19 cannot pinpoint the number of active cases in the community, or where specifically those cases are coming from, Boyer added. Instead, she said, the team uses the data to monitor trends, which couples nicely with Keene State’s weekly individual testing of all students, faculty and staff.
“So, we are tracking both the cases and the wastewater, in terms of looking at correlation between the numbers,” she said.
Until the past few weeks, occasional spikes in the amount of coronavirus detected in wastewater quickly receded, suggesting the college’s plan to isolate people who test positive for COVID-19, and quarantine any of their close contacts, is working, Rennix added.
“When we have a case, and we have a spike, and then that spike comes back down, which means that we were able to control it quickly enough, before it was able to spread out into the community,” Rennix said. The most recent wastewater testing has shown more consistently elevated levels of the novel coronavirus.
He added that the wastewater testing has not shown evidence of widespread community transmission yet, but that could change with the upcoming holiday season, when people are spending more time indoors due to colder weather, and potentially traveling outside of the community.
“That’s going to be the test,” Rennix said.
Wastewater testing will continue through the winter, even after Keene State students return home before Thanksgiving. College faculty working on the project share the data they collect with city officials and staff at Cheshire Medical Center to help guide the community’s response to the pandemic.
The wastewater testing is also an important part of Keene State’s plan to bring students back to campus in the spring, and have them remain in the community through the end of the school year, President Melinda Treadwell said.
“This is important work, because these data provide a predictive measure of the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus in our greater Keene community, and on the Keene State campus,” Treadwell said in a prepared statement. “These data are one consideration, among others, that the college is using to guide our operations during the pandemic to ensure the health and safety of our whole community.”
Wastewater testing also provides a valuable research opportunity for Keene State students, biology professor Loren Launen said. In addition to several students assisting on the project as an independent study course, Launen said students in about 10 classes regularly discuss and analyze the results of the wastewater testing.