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COVID wastewater testing expands to Jazz Fest; at-home tests influence case numbers

Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 6:30 PM CDT
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Jazz Fest portable toilets will help with COVID monitoring.
Jazz Fest portable toilets will help with COVID monitoring.(Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - As Jazz Fest brings thousands of locals and tourists together this weekend and next, the Louisiana Department of Health will test wastewater in that area for COVID, in hopes of getting valuable data about the spread of the virus.

This comes as official COVID case numbers may not tell the full story, in terms of people contracting the virus.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno is the director of the New Orleans Health Department.

“Being able to add additional sites particularly as we’ve started to do this past week around the Fair Grounds and in the French Quarter is going to really give us more robust data on what is out there and circulating in some of these big festivals and other events,” said Avegno.

LSU Health epidemiologist Dr. Edward Trapido helped set up the wastewater testing program at LSU.

“The idea is, if it appears in the wastewater, it usually signals that about three or four days later there’s going to be an increase in the number of cases,” said Trapido.

Wastewater testing is very helpful, says Avegno.

“I think it’s been very helpful in the last few months and it’s only going to get more helpful. Since mid-February we’ve been able to get wastewater results,” said Avegno.

She says COVID cases are increasing but gives perspective.

“What we’re seeing is definitely an increase in cases, not nearly as tremendous an increase as we saw in Omicron, thank goodness, this is very similar, even maybe not quite so severe as what the Northeast has been seeing for the past several weeks, so it’s not unexpected,” said Avegno.

FOX 8 asked Trapido if the situation may be worse than what the wastewater samples suggest.

It could be but it’s probably a pretty good indicator of what the situation is,” said Trapido.”It could be worse because there are people who will come in for the day who are not contributing to the wastewater right now and they might have COVID.” In New Orleans, Avegno says wastewater is tested on both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River.

“Now what we’re seeing is that they’ve both gone up, the east bank’s gone up to a higher degree than the west bank, and not sure, it’s hard to really predict exactly why but probably it has something to do with the fact that there’s been a lot of events on the east bank,” says Avegno.

Health care officials acknowledge that COVID case counts may be lower than what is the reality due to at-home tests.

Dr. Cameron Webb, a senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team was asked about that by FOX 8.

“Cases aren’t going to be your best marker, at this point in time, because so many people are doing at-home testing that’s not recorded with those cases levels, so we’re also looking at wastewater testing, we’re looking at symptom surveys, we’re looking at Google searches for COVID-like symptoms,” said Webb.

Trapido agrees.

“People are testing themselves at home, those cases don’t get reported to the health department and so any number of cases that we get from standardized reporting techniques are not going to be accurate, they’ll be an underestimate,” he said.

Locally, Avegno says hospitals are faring well.

“What we’re also seeing is that the hospitals are not having an impact, there are very few people, if any in local hospitals with COVID right now,” she said.

As far as the Jazz Fest wastewater testing, Avegno says it does not mean having to handle individual portable toilets.

“Fortunately, you only have to go to one kind of main water or sewer shed area because as it turns out, just like a neighborhood drains all into one, well, Jazz Fest is kind of like a neighborhood and so all of the Port-o-Lets when they get serviced go into one particular main and so we’re able to sample from that,” Avegno stated.

“It’s fine for people to out and to go to Jazz Fest because that’s outside and that’s one of the big advantages of an outdoor event,” said Trapido.

Avegno plans to attend.

“I expect to see a lot of people out there wearing a mask, when I’m out there for the weekend, if the crowd is really thick, I might just wear a mask as well because I know that’s an extra layer of protection,” she said. Trapido advises older people and people with weakened immune systems to wear masks indoors.

“I would recommend that populations who are immuno-compromised or older if they’re going to events indoors, be a little bit more careful than they would otherwise, it doesn’t really hurt to wear a mask,” he said.

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