Now that so many tests for COVID-19 are done via home kits and cannot be officially tracked via lab reports, the presence of the virus in sewage has become an important indicator of its presence in the Santa community. Barbara.
Since the early days of the pandemic, the city’s wastewater division at the El Estero Water Resources Center has incorporated testing for the virus into its routine water quality exams, Amanda said. Flesse, responsible for the sanitation system. “We have been monitoring the disease development in China and Europe,” she said, “and in January 2020 many European countries started testing their wastewater.” The city of Santa Barbara followed suit.
At first, Flesse’s team used a trial program that was available for free, but the results weren’t verifiable, she said, and they weren’t confident about the distribution of those numbers. . By June or July, they had found a verified lab in Florida that the city could afford, and they’ve been sending a composite sample across the country once a week since. These results are now displayed on a dashboard, but they are also being analyzed by groups of doctors, researchers and public health scientists from the county, UC Santa Barbara and Cottage Health, including Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons , expert in infectious diseases.
The most recently published results on the dashboard were slightly up. Fitzgibbons, who is not only generous with her time but also good at turning complicated scenarios into understandable words, wasn’t too alarmed yet. Looking at California-wide sewage data, the trend was pretty flat: “A week is probably too little to tell us much,” she said. Locally and across most of California, sewage results detected RNA from the SARS-CoV-2 virus in general, not specific variants.
Santa Barbara County remains in the CDC’s Green Tier for COVID-19 Community Levels, which is the lowest tier. The weekly case rate metric is estimated at 43.67 per 100,000 population, and new hospital admissions of COVID are 3.8 per 100,000. As of Oct. 27, in raw state numbers, 23 people were hospitalized in the county, including four in intensive care, which has been around for about a month. The last reported death was apparently October 7 (recent data is incomplete); a total of 729 county residents have lost their lives to COVID since March 2020.
Asked about vaccines, boosters and new Omicron sub-variants – BA.4 and BA.5 are old hat; the new kids on the block are BQ.1.1 and BF.7 – Fitzgibbons said the currently circulating subvariants cause milder, more allergy-like symptoms and more into the upper respiratory system. People still get pneumonia, but it’s a much less common outcome than when COVID-19 first hit.
Unfortunately, the newer subvariants have also developed an increased ability to evade immunities that people have accumulated over the past three years. Fitzgibbons saw that this was the outcome predicted by virologists: the virus adapts to infect more humans but at a lower death rate.
“As individuals and as a population as a whole, we now have this partial and complicated set of protections – or immunity – against having been previously infected, having been vaccinated or boosted, or even getting infected multiple times,” Dr Fitzgibbons said. Available vaccines and boosters continue to protect against serious illness and hospitalization, she said, and create a good immune response. They work best within two to three months of injection, and anyone boosted last winter will benefit from another as the cold season approaches, she advised.
In Santa Barbara County, 12.1% of eligible people received the new bivalent booster — now available for all ages 5 and up — compared to 11.4% in California and 7.3% in the United States. More than 69% of eligible people in the county have at least the primary vaccination.
The enhanced ability of the subvariants to evade antibodies might affect immunocompromised people the most. Many patients with cancer or other diseases receive monoclonal antibody transfusions as an added layer of protection, Dr. Fitzgibbons explained, but some of Omicron’s subvariants are able to evade these treatments. For many people most at risk of opportunistic infections, wearing a protective mask in crowded indoor settings remains a precaution.
Sewage monitoring tests cost the city about $15,000 to $20,000 a year, Flesse said. The group receiving the information hopes the program can be expanded to include other viruses of high concern, possibly through labs at UCSB. Dr Fitzgibbons notes on the dashboard website that influenza and other animal host viruses, noroviruses, hepatitis viruses, poliovirus and multidrug resistant organisms are on the list of insects they would like to be able to detect from the waste water stream. .
They’ve learned from COVID-19 that sewage picks up viruses days or a week before symptoms begin to appear, Flesse said. “It gives us a really good idea of what’s in the city.”
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