BALTIMORE (Nov. 12, 2020)– Governor Larry Hogan today announced a statewide initiative to sample wastewater as an early warning system of a COVID-19 outbreak in vulnerable Maryland communities.
As part of Maryland’s COVID-19 Sewer Sentinel Initiative, Governor Hogan has approved funding of $1 million to sample wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19 in congregate living settings. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in close coordination with the Maryland Department of Health (MDH), will lead the testing effort.
“Our administration is setting an example for the nation on how states can use cutting-edge science, innovative technology, and local partnerships to protect public health and help combat a second wave of COVID-19 infections,” said Governor Hogan.
“Our COVID-19 Sewer Sentinel Initiative can provide early detection, which can save lives. Wastewater can tell a lot about the health and well being of communities and watersheds,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
“This program will help us to understand community transmission in areas and congregate settings,” said Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall. “Used thoughtfully, it will help us focus our prevention and testing efforts where they are most urgently needed.”
In May 2020, The St. Mary’s County Health Department, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (MetCom) partnered on a pilot project to monitor the presence of COVID-19 in local wastewater.
“We need to think about the long-term with COVID-19. We may be dealing with this virus for years.” said Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s County Health Officer. “This pilot study on virus in wastewater helps us plan for longer-term monitoring. In the future, when this pandemic is over, we may have to play whack-a-rona with this virus – pick up on early signs of it re-emerging and aggressively implement public health measures to suppress it before it becomes an epidemic.”
“The Metropolitan Commission is excited about the opportunity to help quantify the scale of this virus and potentially determine if there is a population link to a specific wastewater treatment plant,” said George Erichsen, MetCom executive director. “MetCom facilities process wastewater produced by local residences and businesses so we have a perfect opportunity to work with the College and to provide the Health Officer with background data that could be used in science–based recovery recommendations.”
This next phase of the Sewer Sentinel Initiative builds upon information obtained during a pilot project that began this summer. In that pilot, wastewater was collected from five locations across Maryland and analyzed for the coronavirus. The pilot showed that monitoring could produce meaningful results under proper sampling methodology. In most cases, the wastewater sampling results aligned with results observed through clinical testing.
Perhaps most importantly, the pilot project showed that wastewater sampling provided advanced notice of an outbreak before they were seen through traditional testing. Under the Sewer Sentinel Initiative, sampling results that show an increase of infections in congregant living settings will support an active state and local response to limit the spread of the disease.
Monitoring can help communities know that their homes are safe. If the virus is detected in large quantities it may signal that one or more people are infected. With support from MDH and local health departments, access to testing can identify those with the virus who can take steps to protect themselves and others. Even asymptomatic carriers can be detected with wastewater sampling.
Wastewater sampling under the new phase of Maryland’s COVID-19 Sewer Sentinel Initiative is expected to begin within a month. More information on Maryland’s response to the COVID-19 emergency is available a coronavirus.maryland.gov.