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Sewage COVID Testing Expands to Jazz Fest; home tests influence the number of cases

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Jazz Fest portable toilets will help with COVID monitoring.(Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) — As Jazz Fest brings together thousands of locals and tourists this weekend and next, the Louisiana Department of Health will test sewage from that area for COVID, in the hope to obtain valuable data on the spread of the virus.

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

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

“Being able to add additional sites, especially as we started doing last week around the fairgrounds and in the French Quarter, is really going to give us more robust data on what’s out there and circulating in some of these big festivals and other events,” Avegno said.

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

“The idea is that if it shows up in the sewage, it usually signals that about three or four days later there will be an increase in the number of cases,” Trapido said.

Wastewater analysis is very helpful, says Avegno.

“I think it has been very useful over the past few months and will only become more useful. Since mid-February we have been able to get results on wastewater,” Avegno said.

She says COVID cases are increasing but gives perspective.

“What we are seeing is certainly an increase in cases, not as huge an increase as what we have seen in Omicron, thank goodness it is very similar, even maybe not as severe as what the North East has seen in the last few weeks, so it’s not unexpected,” Avegno said.

FOX 8 asked Trapido if the situation could be worse than the sewage samples suggest.

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

“Now what we see is that they’ve both risen, the east bank has risen to a greater degree than the west bank, and I’m not sure, it’s hard to really predict exactly why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that there have been a lot of events on the eastern shore,” says Avegno.

Health officials acknowledge that the number of COVID cases may be lower than reality due to home testing.

Dr. Cameron Webb, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team, was asked about it by FOX 8.

“Cases will not be your best marker, at this stage, because so many people are doing home tests that are not registered with these levels of cases, so we are also looking at sewage tests, we are looking for when investigating symptoms, we look at Google searches for COVID-like symptoms,” Webb said.

Trapido agrees.

“People are testing themselves at home, these cases are not being reported to the health department and so the number of cases we get through standardized reporting techniques will not be accurate, they will be undercounted,” a- he declared.

Locally, Avegno says hospitals are doing well.

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

As for the Jazz Fest sewage testing, Avegno says that doesn’t mean having to deal with individual portable toilets.

“Fortunately, you only have to go to one type of main pool of water or sewer, because it turns out that just like a neighborhood drains into one, well, Jazz Fest is kind of like a neighborhood and so the whole Port-o-When they get fixed, they go to a particular principal and so we can sample from that,” Avegno said.

“It’s good for people to get out and go to Jazz Fest because it’s outdoors and that’s one of the great things about an outdoor event,” Trapido said.

Avegno plans to attend.

“I expect to see a lot of people wearing a mask, when I’m there for the weekend, if the crowds are really heavy I might wear a mask too because I know it’s a layer of extra protection,” she says. Trapido advises the elderly and people with weakened immune systems to wear masks indoors.

“I would recommend to immunocompromised or older populations if they go to indoor events, to be a little more careful than they would otherwise, it doesn’t really hurt to wear a mask,” said he declared.

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