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Sewage testing for coronavirus in Cape Canaveral may link cases to launch week

Scientists noticed more copies of COVID-19 for the week of launch week

Throughout May testing of the raw sewage at the Cape Canaveral Wastewater Treatment Facility detected no presence of the novel coronavirus - that is, until the week of May 26.
Throughout May testing of the raw sewage at the Cape Canaveral Wastewater Treatment Facility detected no presence of the novel coronavirus - that is, until the week of May 26. (Tim Shortt of Florida Today)

Throughout May testing of the raw sewage at the Cape Canaveral Wastewater Treatment Facility detected no presence of the novel coronavirus - that is, until the week of May 26.

That week tests yielded a concentration of the virus that corresponded to at least 85 COVID-19 patients flushing away the presence of the virus in their stools.

The testing was carried out by the company Biobot Analytics as a part of a nation-wide four week program to map COVID-19 across the United States by sampling raw sewage. “The technology detects fragments of the genetic material of the virus from people who are actively shedding the virus in their stool,” the city said in a Friday news release of the results.

What they found was that for the weeks of May 6, 12 and 19, the virus concentration per liter of sewage in Cape Canaveral was zero.

For the week of May 26, scientists found a concentration of 14,737 copies per liter. They estimate this corresponds to some 85 cases of COVID-19.

Biobot gave the results to the city on Wednesday, and city officials said they alerted county health and emergency officials.

According to Friday’s data from the Department of Health, Cape Canaveral has just eight cases of COVID-19. Why the difference?

“Case estimates may not match the confirmed case numbers in the community for a variety of reasons,” according to the city, which noted that “the fourth week’s higher test result findings coincide with the preparation and launch period of the Demo-2 Mission when large numbers of people gathered to view the liftoff and is not quantitatively associated to resident infections.”

The week of May 26 followed Memorial Day on May 25, and includes the first attempt of the SpaceX crewed Dragon launch on May 27 and the successful blast off to the International Space Station on May 30. Both launch attempts drew thousands to Brevard.

Cape Canaveral, and its restaurants, would have provided prime viewing areas for launch enthusiasts. Public health officials had expressed concern over the potential that launch crowds might aid the spread of COVID-19, but the evidence that sick individuals may have been among the crowd was speculative until now.

NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine had pleaded for people to watch the launch from home over concerns of spreading COVID-19. Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey disagreed, saying the county was “open for launch business.”

A key next step will be to see what the results for future weeks show - and whether coronavirus is spreading in Cape Canaveral.

Brevard has seen a record increase in coronavirus cases this week, adding 60 on Friday for a total of 748.

Biobot Analytics, based in Boston, is conducting tests in some 300 sewer plants in 40 states to map the virus nationwide. The tests isolate “the unique genetic signature of SARS-CoV-2 and analyze the amount of the virus present,” according to Biobot’s website.

Scientists and public health officials hope the technology can provide early warnings of outbreaks and hot spots of contagion.

Testing sewage can show if the new virus is increasing or decreasing in a community, Ian Pepper, a professor and co-director of the University of Arizona’s Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center, told USA TODAY Network-Florida last month. His is one of the groups tracking the virus through different municipal sewage systems.

Cape Canaveral officials said in a statement that the sewage results are “an important reminder that everyone should continue to take COVID-19 very seriously. Please wear a mask whenever possible and social distance yourself from others staying at least six feet away per CDC guidelines.”

Additional reporting by Jim Waymer.

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or asassoon@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @alemzs