Phyllis Rand, water quality coordinator for the Greater Augusta Utilities District, shows a sample of wastewater July 23 that was to be sent out for COVID-19 testing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Seven of eight samples of wastewater taken at the Greater Augusta Utility District since July 21 have tested negative for detectable amounts of the coronavirus.

Those test results suggest the prevalence of the virus that causes COVID-19 is relatively low in the area served by the district, which includes the parts of Augusta, Hallowell, Winthrop, Manchester and Monmouth where residences and businesses are connected to public sewer systems.

The one positive sample, taken Aug. 3, showed trace amounts of the coronavirus.

Based on that positive sample result, and using a mathematical formula that factors in the number of people in the area of study, a company being paid with federal grant funds to study the prevalence of the coronavirus in the district’s service area estimates that when the positive sample was taken there were about 130 people with COVID-19, out of the district’s roughly 19,100 users.

In the same week the positive sample was collected, the Maine CDC reported there were two new cases of COVID-19 in Augusta.

Officials have noted the number of actual cases of people with COVID-19 is likely much higher than the number of confirmed cases, because some people with the disease don’t show any symptoms, and others might not report their illness to authorities or a doctor.

The Greater Augusta Utilities District water treatment plant, July 23 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

Utility district and Augusta city officials hope the testing program will help provide data to show the prevalence of the coronavirus in the area. They said that information could prove valuable in setting public policies — such as whether businesses, government and schools can safely operate and be open to the public — by providing an indication of how many people may have it in the area.

While just one positive test of eight would seem to suggest the coronavirus is not widespread in the area, officials cautioned residents against abandoning steps they’ve taken to prevent its spread.

“The fact it did show up, at a very low level, but not the lowest level they detect from, shows that it has been present in the community,” said Keith Luke, Augusta’s deputy development director and the city’s representative to the Greater Augusta Utility District’s board of trustees, who wrote the grant application funding the project. “Our takeaway from that is we need to remain vigilant with all the protocols in place. The good news is we seem to be doing a good job at it.”

He said local officials have not made any changes to protocols based on the data collected from the project so far.

While the positive sample coincided with two new cases being reported in Augusta, the CDC also reported new ones in Kennebec County during some of the weeks when negative results were returned.

According to the website for Biobot, the Massachusetts-based company doing the testing for Augusta and nearly 400 other cities, the company’s methods for detecting the coronavirus in sewage are adapted from CDC protocols. Their approach relies on detecting genetic fragments of the virus that are excreted in stool.

GAUD Water Quality Coordinator Phyllis Rand, who began collecting and sending the samples to Biobot in late July, said the district plans to take 24 samples total. She said the test does not indicate whether the coronavirus is still active.

A sample of wastewater, on July 23, that the Greater Augusta Utilities District sent out for COVID-19 testing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

The test results so far, Augusta Mayor David Rollins said, seem to be good news about the prevalence of coronavirus in the community.

“I think it’s good we’re keeping an eye on it, but I don’t think anybody is out of the woods yet,” he said.

Asked how the city would use the information, Rollins said it should be used “carefully.”

“Because we don’t want people to get the impression there is no threat, or to get reckless,” he said. “We have been careful and I think that’s why we’ve gotten good results.”

Luke learned of the project after hearing about it on National Public Radio. He approached Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District, about having the testing done in Augusta, but at some $1,200 per sample they agreed the cost was too great.

They shelved the idea until Luke learned of grants from the federal CARES Act that will now pay the $24,000 cost of weekly testing from now until the end of October.

“Our primary goal is to keep the community safe,” Tarbuck said in a news release. “This proactive approach is something larger cities across the country are doing to help residents and business owners stay informed about the amount of COVID-19 in the community. We are pleased with the early reporting and will continue to monitor the situation and keep the public informed.”

The Portland Water District, in a partnership with St. Joseph’s College in Standish, is also regularly testing wastewater samples for the presence of COVID-19.

“We want to be mindful that COVID-19 is a part of our daily lives,” Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said in a news release. “Wastewater testing and monitoring of the results will continue to guide our efforts to return to the new normal.

“Most importantly we need to use proper hygiene, such as washing your hands and not touching your face and practicing social distancing,” he added. “These are the most effective ways we can stop the spread of COVID-19.”

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