Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Wastewater from toilets, showers and sinks in New Mexico prisons and juvenile facilities may help predict and prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, thanks to a new program from the state Environment Department.
On Wednesday, NMED began sampling sewage at two Las Cruces institutions: the John Paul Taylor Center, a juvenile detention center, and the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.
The samples will be sent to an out-of-state lab. NMED should learn in three to four days whether the wastewater contains SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the state’s southern region was chosen because of the high virus positivity rate and below-average testing rate.
“The science at this point is not something where we’ll look at the results and say there are 50 positive cases at this facility. It’s not that direct,” Hayden said.
Instead, the results can be used to identify trends and prompt additional nasal swab testing at the facilities.
The process detects concentrations of the virus in fecal matter.
Sewage testing has been used for early detection of polio and other diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dozens of U.S. cities and colleges, including New Mexico State University, are testing wastewater as an early indicator of COVID-19.
“SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in the feces of individuals with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection; therefore, wastewater surveillance can capture data on both types of infection,” the CDC website reads.
The initial sampling of some New Mexico jails and Children, Youth and Families Department facilities is funded by $300,000 from the federal CARES Act.
New Mexico Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said the agency is grateful for the collaborative testing program.
“This is an exciting opportunity to detect COVID early in our facilities, driving testing strategies to protect our staff and inmate populations,” Tafoya Lucero said in a statement.
As of Wednesday, the New Mexico Department of Health reported 177 COVID-19 cases at the state-operated Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.
NMED is contracting with Eastern Research Group Inc. for the sampling. The environmental monitoring company also works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several states.
The team will test the facilities’ wastewater twice a week.
“It is dependent on resources, but the idea would be to expand to other areas of the state and possibly other congregate living settings,” Hayden said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.