Sep 27, 2022 - COVID

D.C.'s wastewater program data sees continued delays

Washington, D.C., wastewater collection sites
Note: The addresses of eight existing ward community sites and one future site could not be confirmed and are not shown. Data: D.C. Health. Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

D.C. has finally collected two months' worth of wastewater COVID-19 data, but has yet to send it to the CDC or make the data public.

Why it matters: Officials across the country have used wastewater to monitor coronavirus levels in feces and warn of potential spikes in cases days before individual testing can.

Catch-up quick: D.C. received funding in Nov. 2021 to begin wastewater analysis. The city told Axios in March it expected to make data public in April, pending the arrival of necessary equipment.

  • Five months later, no data has been made public, although the city tells Axios it has collected two months' worth of data.
  • A CDC spokesperson told Axios earlier this month that it’s working with D.C. to submit data but hasn't done so yet. DC Health did not respond to Axios' inquiries about an exact date.

Between the lines: The process was further delayed by contractor changes, Anil Mangla, D.C.’s state epidemiologist, told Axios earlier this month.

  • D.C.'s contract with LumniUltra ended in May, per DCist. Mangla also told DCist that understaffing hindered progress.

What’s happening: Data collection at 16 sites began this summer, Mangla tells Axios, and will increase to 24 sites, including eight schools.

  • Several of the future sites are vulnerable to infection surges, such as St. Elizabeths Hospital and D.C. Jail.
  • A planned site in Oxon Hill, Md. would give further insight into wards 7 and 8, the areas hardest hit by the virus.

Zoom out: While other cities, including New York, have used wastewater surveillance to detect the presence of monkeypox and polio infections; D.C. is only monitoring coronavirus.

  • Mangla says monkeypox is more symptomatic, meaning it’s easier to tell whether it’s increasing. Many coronavirus patients, on the other hand, could be asymptomatic, spreading the infection without knowing it.
  • As for polio, Mangla adds, vaccination is highly effective and D.C.’s high vaccination rate makes a polio outbreak unlikely.

Yes, but: D.C. has the lowest national polio vaccination rate for kindergarteners at just over 80%. This summer, D.C. leaders urged families to get their children their routine vaccinations.

What we're watching: Wastewater monitoring for coronavirus will continue for at least another six months, Mangla says, as the city watches how the pandemic progresses.

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