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NMED: Sewage testing prevented COVID outbreak

A New Mexico Environment Department employee collects a wastewater sample at a facility in southern New Mexico. An out-of-state lab tests the samples for concentrations of the virus that causes COVID-19. (New Mexico Environment Department)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A state sewage testing program may have helped prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at a Las Cruces juvenile jail last month, the New Mexico Environment Department announced Monday.

NMED sampling data show that concentrations of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, were detected in wastewater at the J. Paul Taylor Center on Dec. 23.

The Children, Youth and Families Department responded by testing more than 100 facility employees and residents for the virus.

Test results showed that an employee who was asymptomatic with COVID-19 was working when NMED and Eastern Research Group Inc. collected the sewage sample.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states that “SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in the feces of individuals with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection.”

The COVID-positive employee was instructed to self-isolate. Results from Dec. 28 and Dec. 30 samples did not detect virus concentrations.

CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock said the pandemic has prompted “innovative thinking and collaboration” among state agencies.

“The wastewater testing system is a terrific example of our commitment to test, track and mitigate the spread of the virus to keep our staff members and the people they serve safe and healthy,” Blalock said in a statement.

The state began contracting with ERG in early December to sample and test wastewater at jails and CYFD facilities. Now the team tests sewage twice a week at 16 facilities in Las Cruces, Deming, Chaparral, Roswell and Hagerman.

The program is funded by $300,000 from the federal CARES Act.

Sampling results for each facility are posted on the NMED website. The data is recorded in units of virus particles per liter of wastewater.

Grab samples, like those from the J. Paul Taylor Center, are collected at one point in time. Composite samples are collected multiple times in a 24-hour period.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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