BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Since last September, Erie County Health officials have been taking samples twice a week from eight different sewage pumping locations as a way to anonymously detect viral material in wastewater and get an idea of what areas may be spiking with COVID-19.

“We’re able to look at trends, we’re able to look at hotspots,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, commissioner of the Erie County Department of Health. “We know that although not everyone gets a COVID test, everyone uses the bathroom at least once.”

Dr. Ian Bradley, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo says when the testing does detect detect COVID in the diluted wastewater, it’s very noticeable.

“You know, when it goes up, it really goes up,” he said. “This is not a sort of small little increase; the wastewater trends are, like, really exponential.”

So far the County and state have not used this kind of testing to directly affect decision making on COVID restrictions in certain areas, but they say what they find in the sewers is often often exactly what the testing proves a week later.

“Three days before they see symptoms, we see spikes and those sort of dramatic trends allow us to see this a week before we see cases and maybe even two weeks before hospitalization,” said Dr. Bradley.

The findings are all spelled out on the Erie County Health Department’s website.

The testing program was outlined publicly for the first time on Thursday afternoon by WebEx news conference. The most encouraging news is the sewage tests from this week are not even detecting COVID at many of the pumping stations, according to Dr. Bradley.

“For the first time since this all started in the last week or two, we’ve not been able to detect SARS-CoV-2 in our wastewater at some locations which is really fantastic,” he said.

George Richert is an award-winning reporter who first joined the News 4 team in 1998, later returning in 2018. See more of his work here.