A new initiative has been announced to help detect COVID-19 in wastewater in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“As we continue through the pandemic, the wastewater surveillance program is an early detection tool that can help detect COVID-19 in wastewater and alert officials about the presence and potential transmission of COVID-19 in a community,” said Bernard Davis, minister of environment and climate change. “I am pleased to see the progress and results from this innovative program. We are also very pleased that our officials along with officials from the Department of Health and Community Services are participating on a number of national forums in this area.”

A wastewater surveillance program was initiated in partnership with the Department of Health and Community Services and the City of St. John’s during the outbreak in the Northeast Avalon region in February. Samples were collected at the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility, which treats wastewater for approximately 130,000 people in St. John’s, Mount Pearl, and Paradise.

“Having a healthy city and population is important to the City of St. John’s,” said Danny Breen, mayor of the City of St. John’s. “We are pleased to support the Department of Health and Community Services and the Department of Environment and Climate Change in gathering important data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to best address and protect the health of our citizens.”

To date, 24 wastewater samples have been collected. Only two out of 24 tested positive for COVID-19 during the peak infection timeframe in February. All samples analyzed since February have tested negative for COVID-19. As part of collaborative work in this emerging area of research, these samples are currently analyzed by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg at no cost to the provincial government.

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“Currently across Canada, research is happening to determine the potential benefit of wastewater surveillance in the context of COVID-19,” said John Haggie, minister of health and community services. “This partnership aligns with the research happening across the country and will serve us well as we continue to learn more about the presence of COVID-19 in this province. Possible expansion of the program will help inform our public health team’s work on COVID-19 and help us detect early signs of COVID-19 in our communities, allowing us to move quicker and catch the virus before it spreads.”

Wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 allows for the detection of the virus in a large population. An infected person not only sheds the virus when they breathe out, but it also appears in their feces. Through genomic testing, the virus can be detected in a wastewater sample. Testing can provide an early warning of positive and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 in the community, and it can assist in public health guidance.

A Wastewater Surveillance Working Group will explore expansion of the program. The expansion will:

  • Look at the collection of samples from other communities in the province.
  • Examine the testing as a tool for mass public health surveillance for other diseases.
  • Explore opportunities to collaborate with other partners.

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