Peterborough health unit offers to cover wastewater surveillance costs after Ontario ends program

Click to play video: 'Peterborough Public Health plans to cover wastewater surveillance costs after province drops the program'
Peterborough Public Health plans to cover wastewater surveillance costs after province drops the program
Weeks after Ontario announced plans to cut COVID-19 wastewater testing, local health officials are taking matters into their own hands. Peterborough Public Health says it's ready to foot the bill if the government doesn't change course – Jun 13, 2024

Two weeks after the Ontario government announced it would scrap its wastewater surveillance to monitor COVID-19, health officials in Peterborough may pay to keep the program running locally.

The $15-million program was launched in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to assist in monitoring the level of COVID-19 in a population. Funded by the Ministry of the Environment, the program is run by universities and research sites across the province.

The program is expected to end on July 31, coming on the heels of an expanded federal testing program. The province says the shutdown will “avoid duplication” with the federal program.

However, Peterborough Public Health’s medical officer of health Dr. Thomas Piggott says the federal program won’t reach the city and area. He called the province’s decision “deeply disappointing.”

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“Peterborough would be left out. We know that the data here does not follow the same pattern as Toronto or Ottawa, we’re halfway between,” Piggott said Thursday. “And we have a very different pattern of transmission.”

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The health unit and Trent University have been working together on testing wastewater samples for COVID-19 since December 2020. Samples sent to the university’s DNA building came from communities from Peterborough east to Belleville, including from many long-term care facilities.

The health unit says the “high-quality” data helped officials make better-informed decisions for public health during the pandemic and allowed individuals to make informed choices about their personal health.

Christopher Kyle, a Trent University forensic science professor, says the samples also expedited a response to the pandemic.

“As opposed to some arbitrary, ‘OK, you guys are in outbreak right now, you need to wait two to the three weeks,’ we could tell them, ‘You know what? The wastewater signal says it’s all clear,'” he said.

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Kyle notes as the pandemic wound down, efforts increased to track other viruses, including norovirus, rotavirus, parainfluenza and other coronaviruses.

“As time went on we were able to not only detect SARS-CoV 2 but we started detecting influenza and RSV,” he said.

The board notes Trent was able to “quickly pivot” in 2022 and screen for mpox that was detected locally.

Piggott says if the province’s shutdown proceeds, all of the testing will end.

On Wednesday, the health unit’s board agreed to ask the government to reconsider covering the cost of the program.

If not, the health unit may attempt to do it themselves. The board estimates the annual cost to run the program would be a maximum of $62,500, based on collecting samples three to five times per week for 50 weeks starting in August.

“This is not just about COVID-19. This a pandemic preparedness tool,” Piggott said. “The pandemic was significant and we need to be prepared for the next one.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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