Cocoa Beach sewage shows ‘record levels’ of COVID-19, city says

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BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The virus that causes COVID-19 bumped up to record levels in Cocoa Beach sewage at the same time it was plummeting in neighboring Cape Canaveral, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

City officials aren’t sure yet why but say they need more data before drawing any conclusions.

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News 6 partner Florida Today reported the virus has been dropping significantly during the first few weeks of January in the sewage samples Cape Canaveral and other municipalities that have been testing for more than a year, such as in Orange County and in Boston.

But the most recent data available shows that’s not quite the case yet in Cocoa Beach, which began sampling sewage in the second half of 2020. The values from early January were much higher than what the city experienced over a year ago, said Brad Kalsow, director of Cocoa Beach’s water reclamation department.

Cocoa Beach stopped testing its sewage for the virus when the disease died down in late 2020 but started sampling again in January when the more infectious omicron variant emerged.

“Due to the long gap between sampling events, it can’t be determined if these new values are at a peak level or declining until we can perform additional sampling and compare results,” Kalsow said.

Omicron, first discovered in South Africa in November, is far more transmissible than earlier versions and had caused soaring case numbers worldwide in December and early January. The good news, though, is that omicron appears to cause less severe disease than delta and other earlier variants. So far, hospitalizations and deaths haven’t risen at the same pace as new cases.

Cocoa Beach’s 2020 sewage samples ranged from a few thousand to almost 30,000 copies of genetic material per liter, hitting a high on Nov. 16, 2020, at 101,000 copies of genetic material per liter. The city attributed that spike to the crowds in town that week for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch carrying the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

But the first week of this year almost quadrupled that previous record. On Jan. 3, levels of the virus in Cocoa Beach’s sewage reached 395,000 copies of genetic material per liter, dropping to 187,000 the following day, to 173,000 on Jan. 5, and then jumping up to 263,000 copies of genetic material per liter on Jan. 6.

While cruise ships have been experiencing high frequencies of infection from the omicron variant, the higher levels in Cocoa Beach’s sewage can’t be directly attributed to cruise ships docked at Port Canaveral, Kalsow added, but possibly contribute in during passengers’ brief time in port.

“The wastewater on the cruise ships themselves is not discharged into the sewer conveyance system,” Kalsow said. “The city only receives and treats wastewater from the terminals as well as all the restaurants and businesses at the port.”

Interpretation of the results will require more sampling, he said.

“At this point I don’t know what to do with the data until additional samples can be complete,” Kalsow said.