Wastewater Helps Cities Detect Community Spread of COVID Variants Like Omicron

Major cities in the U.S. are turning to a unique tactic to detect and track the community spread of COVID-19 variants like Omicron: Wastewater.

On Monday, officials in Houston, Texas, confirmed the city's first case of Omicron in a fully vaccinated patient with no recent travel history. Now, the Omicron variant has been detected in the wastewater at eight of Harris County's 39 treatment facilities, indicating that the new strain has achieved community transmission in the area, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Harris County has been testing wastewater for COVID-19 for the last year. According to experts, the method can be one of the most accurate for detecting the virus, as patients can shed traces of the virus in their feces even if they show no symptoms or test negative for it.

So far, Harris County has detected Omicron at the following facilities: W.C.I.D. #111, Chocolate Bayou, Keegans Bayou, Metro Central, Northgate, Sims Bayou North, Turkey Creek, and West District. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took the findings as an opportunity to commend the work of the city's health department and to encourage citizens to get vaccinated.

omicron variant wastewater
Health officials in Houston have detected COVID-19 in wastewater at eight treatment facilities. Above, a COVID-19 test center operates inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on December 1, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

"The Houston Health Department and Houston Water continue to do an exceptional job tracking the impact of the virus in our community," Turner said in a statement. "Vaccines help protect us, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues in the work environment. As the holidays approach, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant about their health and safety."

On the other side of the U.S., Boston officials have also been utilizing wastewater to track the spread of COVID-19. A report from Sunday indicated that traces of the virus were being detected at extremely high levels, matching the city's record-high averages from January.

"This is pretty worrisome," Davidson Hamer, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University, told the Boston Herald. "The wastewater data closely mirrors community transmission rates, and all the indicators are not good right now."

These skyrocketing numbers come only a little more than a week after the Thanksgiving holiday. So far, southern Boston is trending higher, with around 23 percent higher levels detected in its wastewater than northern Boston, the Herald reported.

"The wastewater is predictive, and when it's going up like this, you expect a significant surge in cases," Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health, told the publication. "Then in the weeks to follow, you see an increase in hospitalizations and an increase in deaths."

Early research suggests that Omicron might be infectious and more resistant to vaccines than the Delta variant, but that it might also result in more mild sicknesses. Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday said that the available reports indicate that the new strain appears to lack a "great degree of severity."