AUGUSTA — A recent test of sewage that comes from several area communities showed the highest level of coronavirus since the Greater Augusta Utility District began taking samples of wastewater to test for the virus in 2020.

Phyllis Rand, water quality coordinator for the Greater Augusta Utilities District, shows a sample of wastewater July 23, 2020, that was to be sent out for COVID-19 testing. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

While there generally has not been a direct correlation between the amount of the virus found in sewage samples with documented cases of COVID-19, wastewater testing has become a key indicator during the COVID-19 pandemic to indicate the prevalence of the virus’s spread in geographic areas.

The Greater Augusta Utility District  recorded a test May 11 of 2.6 million copies of the virus per liter of sewage, the most since the district began testing sample wastewater for COVOD-19 through grant funding.

That was followed May 12 by the second-highest recorded sample there, at 2.3 million. Both samples reflect a general recent trend that has seen the amount of virus increasing, officials said, and both are well more than other samples, which have generally been less than 1 million virus copies per liter of wastewater tested.

“From what we have, if the data is accurate, there is quite a lot of the virus that causes COVID in the wastewater here, or at least there was on May 11 and 12,” said Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the utility district based in Augusta, which provides water and sewage handling services to several communities in the area. “This is the highest we’ve seen in our testing.”

The treatment plant in Augusta takes wastewater from Augusta and parts of Monmouth, Manchester, Winthrop, Hallowell and the Veterans Affairs Medical and Regional Office Center at Togus.

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The virus is shed in the feces of those with COVID-19, making its way into sewer systems. Biobot Analytics, a Massachusetts firm to which Augusta sends its samples, analyzes sewage to determine the presence of the virus and level of infected individuals among sewer system users.

The sampling program provides a snapshot of the total amount of coronavirus in an area’s waste stream. Its results might not correspond with an area’s case counts, in part because official case counts only include cases in people who have reported to medical professionals that they have the virus, and do not include people who have the disease but get tested, or those who use home do-it-yourself tests and do not report the results.

On Monday, officials with the Maine’s Center for Disease Control & Prevention reported the number of Maine hospital patients with COVID-19 had dropped 12% in less than a week, with 203 hospitalizations.

“There is not a direct correlation, but wastewater screening is an effective way to measure community exposure, particularly when so many people are using at-home tests, the results of which are not reported to Maine CDC,” said Robert Long, communications director for the Maine CDC. “A significant increase in virus detected via wastewater screening could foreshadow an increase in hospitalizations.”

Long emphasized that wastewater screening is one of many measurements or tools the state uses to analyze the impact of COVID-19, including data on hospitalizations, deaths, information from health care providers and positive test results.

Kennebec County, which includes all of the municipalities that send wastewater to the Greater Augusta Utility District for treatment, is now at the state’s medium risk level for coronavirus.

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In recent weeks, the arrival of a more-contagious subvariant of the omicron strain has led to higher daily case counts in Maine, according to Long. Those cases, however, have also tended to be less severe, resulting in fewer hospitalizations in the state.

Tarbuck said the next sampling at the treatment plant in Augusta is likely to take place next week, with those test results likely back the week after that.

The district and several others across the state, although no others in central Maine, share their wastewater coronavirus test data with the Maine CDC.

At least one recent COVID-19 case in Augusta involved city councilors. One of the councilors tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, the day after councilors met.

Susan Robertson, Augusta’s city manager, said everyone potentially exposed to that councilor at the meeting has been advised and provided information on the Maine CDC’s recommendations for steps they should follow. She said she could not disclose which city councilor had tested positive for COVID-19.

Robertson said she was at Thursday’s City Council meeting, which took place in the fairly spacious council chambers, but included an earlier meeting with city officials in a much smaller conference room. She is now wearing a protective mask and plans to get tested on the fifth day after the exposure.

Members of the public and city employees are not required now to wear masks at municipal buildings in Augusta.

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