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Here is how Miami-Dade uses wastewater epidemiology research to track omicron spread

Researchers detected omicron in wastewater in Miami-Dade County. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava asks residents to get the booster shot.

Earnie Enriquez, a treatment plant operator, stood next to where Miami-Dade County’s sewage first enters the Central District Treatment Plant in Miami’s Virginia Key and collected a sample.

The wastewater sample was delivered to an environmental lab technician. Biobot Analytics, the company doing the testing, is a spinoff from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology students’ research project.

Epidemiologists use the data on COVID wastewater levels to anticipate future coronavirus cases in the community. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said on Thursday there has been a recent rise in cases.

“This is driven by the holiday season and the arrival of omicron. It is an unfortunate reminder to all of us that the pandemic is not over,” Levine Cava said during a news conference on Thursday.

arnie Enriquez, a treatment plant operator, stood next to where Miami-Dade County’s sewage first enters the Central District Treatment Plant in Miami’s Virginia Key and collected a sample.

Roy Coley, the director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, said he shares the analysis from Biobot with the University of Miami, county emergency management, and medical experts.

“We consider our role in this is to collect the information and supply it to the experts to use it for the betterment of our community and society as a whole,” Coley said.

The weekly sampling process detected omicron is in Miami-Dade, but it is not yet known how pervasive it is, according to Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokeswoman for the water and sewer department.

“We as a department are trailblazers. We were the first in the nation to do this,” Coley said about the surveillance program, which began in March 2020.

Other municipalities followed Miami-Dade County’s lead with Biobot Analytics, which partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The nationwide wastewater monitoring program produces data on thousands of samples at more than 300 wastewater treatment facilities.

Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University expert in infectious disease and disaster medicine, said the data analysis has been critical for public health planning.

“It has given us a head’s up when new variants are in our community and it makes us aware of who is likely to be coming to the hospitals and gives us a concept of the likely numbers we can expect,” Marty said.

Scientists are working to learn more about omicron. Marty said that while it appears to be more transmissible than the delta variant, the severity of the disease remains unclear and there isn’t enough evidence about the impact on the unvaccinated and on the older population.

More than 800,000 Americans, including more than 62,000 in Florida, have died. Marty said the vast majority, somewhere around 75%, are people who are aged 65 or older.

“The vast majority of people that have manifested omicron and have been 100% proven to have omicron, are individuals who are either younger or fully vaccinated and reinfections are very common with the omicron variant,” Marty said.

Miami-Dade County is also bringing back the daily reports on COVID-19 hospitalizations, expanding viral surveillance, and providing the public with more access to the vaccine.

Levine Cava tweeted the seven-day positivity rate had risen to 7%. This is the time for those who are eligible for a booster to secure one, and for the unvaccinated to consider a shot of protection, Marty said.

“So long as there are pockets of under-vaccination, those are sources for potentially worse variants,” Marty said.

Levine Cava said Miami-Dade boasts the highest vaccination rate in the state and is well above the national average. She urged residents to use face masks, tests, vaccines, booster shots, keep hands clean, and social distance.

Miami-Dade is also providing vaccinations at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Levine Cava said trucks with vaccines will travel to underserved communities this week.

Starting this week, Miami-Dade will be offering vaccinations to homebound residents aged 12 or older. For more information about getting the vaccine at home or to schedule an appointment, call 1-888-201-5490 or email vaccinations@ilshealth.com.

More on the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Cameron Webb, a member of the White House COVID-19 response team, said South Floridians need to get the booster shot as omicron remains a "variant of concern."

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About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."