NEW ORLEANS — There are around 20,000 manholes in New Orleans. And now doctors say beneath them, lies the evidence of how much COVID is spreading in the city.
In fact, they may hold the answers to what happened during Mardi Gras.
When it comes to health decisions and policies, New Orleans will use new measures to track COVID, shifting away from the raw number of cases, moving towards community risk level, and strain on the hospitals. And now there's also another type of COVID testing that has nothing to do with the nose or mouth.
It has to do with the sewage we all generate.
“Tulane University and LSU have both done it on their campuses, and those have been really interesting. It's a really useful tool for a college, especially if you can sample every dorm, and you can figure out which dorm is going up and you can test that whole dorm and stop it from spreading,” said City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno.
Dr. Edward Trapido, the Associate Dean for Research LSU School of Public Health says when tests showed a trend at a certain dorm, people could isolate sooner and that would then slow the spread of the virus down.
“Yes, it made a huge difference in controlling the outbreaks.”
Genetic material from the virus that causes COVID is in your body and is excreted a couple of days before you feel sick with respiratory symptoms. So the wastewater is kind of like the poisonous gas warning from the canary in the coal mine.
“You can track this over time and see spikes in the number of viral particles, and with that, it prompts action to go in and get tested,” said Dr. Trapido.
“And thanks to our partners at LDH, HHS and Sewerage and Water Board, we've begun wastewater surveillance, which will prove key in the future to spotting the early warning signs of another outbreak,” said Dr. Avegno.
A wastewater sample in Orleans Parish was taken as parades were starting two weeks ago. The second one was taken the following Tuesday. It showed counts went down. Those numbers aren't a perfect prediction, since infected people each shed different volumes of virus particles. So in next weeks’ tests, the city will look for a trend upward or downward.
“I'll make it very clear we do expect future waves of disease. The focus is now shifting to managing outbreaks while preserving health care capacity,” explained Dr. Avegno.
But so far, there is a low percentage of positivity.
The city will not test different neighborhoods individually. Two tests are being done, one on the East Bank and the other on the West Bank.