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Middlesex sheriff, Cambridge partner use wastewater analysis to monitor for Covid

Peter J. Koutoujian, sheriff

The Middlesex Jail & House of Correction has become the first county correctional facility in the nation to partner with Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics to monitor and identify the presence of Covid-19 in wastewater.

“We’re excited to work with Biobot on this new initiative,” Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said in a May 4 news release. “Throughout this pandemic, our decision-making has been medically driven and guided by the science. Partnering with Biobot, a national leader in wastewater epidemiology, enhances our ongoing efforts and will allow us to detect any re-emergence of Covid-19 inside our facility and act rapidly to mitigate it.”

Sewage contains valuable information on human health because viruses, bacteria and chemical metabolites are excreted in urine and stool. Through wastewater epidemiology, Biobot Analytics uses the data present in wastewater to gain valuable insights that shape the health of communities. 

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Biobot has worked with communities across North America to measure SARS-CoV-2 trends in sewage. Because of the early onset of viral shedding, wastewater data has been shown to be a reliable leading indicator of Covid-19 cases. This allows officials to make more informed decisions on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis.

“Sheriff Koutoujian and his team are pioneers in their adoption of wastewater epidemiology to monitor and promote the health of the community living in the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction,” said Newsha Ghaeli, Biobot president and cofounder, in the release. “As we move into the later stages of the pandemic, it’s even more important to have early-warning methods to detect Covid-19 outbreaks. Equipped with better data, the Sheriff’s Office is well positioned to make better decisions, and we hope other counties across the country will follow in their footsteps.”

The initial four weeks of samples collected at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction have shown levels of Covid in wastewater that have been consistent with the results of direct testing involving incarcerated individuals.  The most recent two samples analyzed by Biobot found no detected Covid-19.  That finding is in line with the results of Covid-19 testing conducted on 54 incarcerated individuals that showed zero positive cases.

“The results of the samples analyzed by Biobot show the processes and procedures we have put in place – including testing, mask wearing and quarantining of newly admitted individuals – continue to be effective in mitigating the impact of Covid at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction,” Koutoujian said. “The information gathered through the Biobot testing is providing us with an additional crucial layer of confirmation.” 

The efforts the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office have undertaken over the past 14 months have been highlighted nationally during recent conferences hosted by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Jail Association.  In addition, a peer reviewed publication focused on data collected and analyzed about vaccine enthusiasm and hesitancy among incarcerated individuals and staff at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Urban Health.

Samples are being collected weekly for 26 weeks using an automated sampler that has been installed at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction.  Staff will deliver samples directly to Biobot, reducing shipping time and allowing the office to receive results sooner.  As part of the testing, the office has also opted into Biobot’s variant detection program, with any positive samples further examined for the presence of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7).

In addition to working with Biobot, the office has recently installed ultraviolet germicidal irradiation disinfection equipment in the HVAC system that provides air to and from the Health Services Unit at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction.  The UV system improves air quality by killing the Covid-19 virus in the HVAC system.  All incarcerated individuals who test positive for Covid-19 are placed in the health unit.

“The deployment and implementation of these innovative systems in our jail highlights our ongoing focus on Covid-19,” Koutoujian said.  “Moving forward, we hope to continue to work with Biobot to conduct surveillance testing that will help maintain a healthy, safe environment for our staff and those in our custody.”

Future uses for the Biobot technology at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction could include facility level monitoring for areas ranging from opioids to infectious diseases and influenza.

To learn more about the ongoing Covid-19 response, visit middlesexsheriff.org/covid19


This news announcement was published Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

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