NMED Fighting Pandemic From Sewers: COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Program Shows Early Success

NMED conducts wastewater sampling for COVID-19 at congregate settings in southern New Mexico. Courtesy/NMED

NMED News:

  • Program prevents outbreak at Las Cruces juvenile justice facility

In early December, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) launched an innovative wastewater monitoring program to protect New Mexicans from COVID-19 at congregate settings in southern New Mexico.

Just a few weeks later, the program prevented a COVID-19 outbreak at a southern New Mexico juvenile justice facility. NMED is applying cutting-edge science to protect public health in southern New Mexico.

Here’s how it works:

COVID-positive individuals – whether they are symptomatic or not – shed COVID-19 in their feces;

Twice a week, NMED collects sewage samples at facilities participating in the program and analyzes the sample in a laboratory for COVID-19 gene markers; and

The laboratory confirms the presence or absence of COVID-19 in the wastewater.

Currently, 16 federal, state and local correctional and Children, Youth and Family Services Department (CYFD) facilities in southern New Mexico are enrolled in the NMED program.  

The J. Paul Taylor Center, a CYFD-licensed juvenile justice facility in Las Cruces, is among the program participants. During the first few weeks of the December sampling, NMED did not detect the virus in the facility’s wastewater. In late December, the virus was detected and NMED staff immediately notified CYFD staff, who then immediately directed testing of more than 100 individuals – both clients and staff – for COVID-19.

The individual test results of clients and staff revealed that an asymptomatic COVID-19 positive individual was working in the facility at the time the wastewater sample was collected. That employee was immediately instructed to isolate. Subsequent wastewater samples from the facility did not detect the virus, indicating NMED and CYFD actions prevented an outbreak among the clients and staff at the facility. NMED continues to sample sewage at the facility.

“It’s clear that our actions saved lives,” NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said. “The Environment Department continues to embrace the use of science and innovation to fight this virus and keep New Mexicans safe.”

“COVID-19 has brought out the best in innovative thinking and collaboration across New Mexico’s state agencies,” CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock said. “The wastewater testing system is a terrific example of our commitment to test, track and mitigate the spread of the virus to keep our staff members and the people they serve safe and healthy.”

NMED is posting all COVID-19 wastewater sampling data here. NMED updates the dashboard as results come in and shares trends with facility personnel so appropriate public health measures are taken.

In the next few weeks, the dashboard will be updated to include graphs in addition to the posted datapoints to make trends easier for users to identify. For the safety of clients, information from domestic violence shelters is not publicly posted.

NMED is funding this effort through the federal CARES Act and will expand to other areas of the state and facility types as funding allows.