A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Albany corona: What sewage tests showed

Written April 24th, 2020 by Hasso Hering

Samples for a COVID-19 study were taken at the sewage treatment plant, seen here on March 22.

Everybody has been saying that people infected by the new coronavirus vastly outnumber the cases actually confirmed and reported. An Albany study appears to confirm that belief.

Biobot Analytics, a company based in Somerville, Mass., analyzed samples of wastewater collected at the Albany-Millersburg treatment plant on April 6, looking for genetic fragments of the virus that are excreted in stool. The testing detected about 30,000 copies of the virus per liter of sewage. And this produced an estimate of 1,500 cases of COVID-19 infection, or 2.8 percent of the population.

At the time of the sampling, 44 cases had been confirmed in Linn County. By this Thursday, more than two weeks later, the Linn County case count had risen to 67.

Albany City Manager Peter Troedsson reported the Biobot results in his Friday summary to the city council. He cautioned that the findings were based on an epidemiological model still being calibrated and refined. The researchers, he said, plan to give future results in ranges rather than specific estimated numbers. The next report will be based on sampling from April 15.

Biobot describes itself online as a worldwide leader in wastewater epidemiology. You can learn more about the company, its work and its staff members here.

How to interpret the Albany findings, if reasonably accurate, may depend on your general outlook about the corona outbreak and our reaction to it.

You can say: Look, in Albany and Millersburg we’ve had roughly 34 times as many COVID-19 cases as we were told we did in the whole county. And the fact that so few people actually became sick shows that the governor was right in ordering many small businesses to shut down and people to stay home. That’s the line of the state epidemiologist, who says the state’s mitigation measures prevented a much worse outbreak.

Or you can conclude: Look, back in early April the Albany area alone had around 1,500 carriers of the virus and almost all of them were not even sick enough to come to the attention of the medical authorities. So the actions to crash the economy, decimate state and local government revenues, and throw tens of thousands of workers statewide on the dole, was overkill to say the least. (hh)

29 responses to “Albany corona: What sewage tests showed”

  1. M says:

    The later is the real answer paranoia and panic rule the oregon governmental leaders

  2. Jenrose says:

    We’ve known all along that the majority, even the vast majority of carriers are asymptomatic. That’s never been a question. But that doesn’t mean the choices were wrong. If our case load is light and our ill are not as sick as people in New York or elsewhere, that’s because of the early recommendations and good fortune, not because the thing was overblown. I know so many people who have lost people in the past month to this. People who had a wealth of experience and skills and knowledge. Health professionals. We already had a shortage of nurses and doctors in this country, and now we have nurses and doctors dying, and dying young, from this thing which we have the ability to slow.

    I’m not angry that our case load isn’t higher here of seriously ill people. I’m immensely, profoundly relieved and grateful to the leadership which shut things down before they could get “that bad”.

  3. Constant Observer says:

    Does North Albany have its own treatment plant? I am pretty sure that sewage does not cross the river for treatment…or does it?

    As for conclusions to draw, I believe that we can know that better when just a little more time has passed.

  4. Sarah Owens says:

    Thanks for the *info*, but to the suggestion that “how to interpret section” could “depend” on “your general outlook” — as opposed to training and experience in epidemiological studies — encourages confirmation bias, something there’s too much of already. If you don’t know how to interpret the results, fine, just say so.

  5. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    If government(s) knowingly understate the number of cases (by roughly 34x), and many Albany residents are able to fight the virus off without any treatment at all—unaware they even had it—how much herd immunity are Albany residents missing out on by being under house arrest?

    Let the revolution begin, peacefully of course.

  6. Ray Kopczynski says:

    Absolutely I’ll go with “the line of the epidemeologist” over wishful thinking!

    • Gordon L. Shadle says:

      Your comment has a sheep-like quality to it.

      Shouldn’t the grossly understated number of cases, and the blatantly overstated rate of lethality, inform government’s response?

      These facts clearly weaken the government case for a lockdown. The enemy here is not the virus, the enemy is fear promoted by government.

      Some will lay down in response to the fear government wants you to feel. Some will rise up and challenge those who wield the stock prod.

      Don’t be a sheep, Ray. Think for yourself.

      • Ray Kopczynski says:

        As usual, you try and extrapolate the worst. There will be more samplings done & reported. I will always trust the science over pundits from any walk of life.

  7. Bernard Brockgreitens says:

    Very interesting, would like to know why Albany? Is this being done by the City, County State or Feds.? I haven’t heard of any reporting of this type of testing on any news outlet – is this something new or did I just miss it? Seems to be very important in determining the community spread that is so hot a topic and looks to be a test that can provide very important information without nationwide testing.

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      You just missed it. Search the web for stories – many out there…

    • Darlene says:

      I believe 10 other cities in Oregon have conducted these tests and it also happening on a national level. I think we will start learning what the real infection rate is and a more accurate morbidity rate will be much lower than the models projected. I see comments on here about the “asymptomatic” but nowhere does this testing infer that the carriers were asymptomatic. Just not sick enough to seek medical attention. Hopefully, this will show that we have been establishing a level of herd immunity all along and diminish the fear factor the media sells on a daily, if not hourly basis.

  8. John Klock says:

    You published science in this article, a foundation of American society, but so degraded by the White House. You published a primary source (remember that), the cornerstone of any research but mocked as fake news today. Remember the days when a person’s word was everything? One thought carefully about the impact of the words they used; they defined a person, and were the basis of how communities and business functioned… from the days of the Oregon Trail to the founding of the city of Albany. When people write obituaries about others, they often remember the words of the deceased, and how those words related to the way that living person conducted themselves with their loved ones and in their community.

  9. Katherine says:

    I’m not panicked or paranoid however we are helpless to stop this virus other then use common sense and precaution. There is no testing available and there is no cure. A virus that was exclusively in China somehow spread to a Veterans Home in March in Lebanon Oregon infecting 19 people and killing 3 .This virus is everywhere. Let’s see how Georgia and Florida do with the recent relaxation of restrictions.

  10. Jim Engel says:

    Well…don’t eat poop then. Liars figure & figures lie. I suppose it depends on who is doing the calculations.

    • Gordon L. Shadle says:

      Jim, I think you missed the point.

      There isn’t much fear that the virus can be spread by eating someone else’s sewage (lol).

      The point is that the number of cases being reported by government are misleading and do not justify the lock-down policies currently in effect.

      The population with the most risk can be protected with smaller, more narrow, measures. This would allow necessary socializing to generate herd immunity amongst those with the least risk.

      Facts matter, but government is failing to acknowledge them.

  11. Spencer Watkins says:

    The latter conclusion is probably most likely.

    It appears that the cure is going to be more deadly than the disease. How many MORE are likely to suffer stress-related injuries, death due to not being able to maintain a household and/or a business to to this governmental overreach? I suspect the damages are going to be severe.

  12. thomas cordier says:

    thanks to Peter for the research initiative. Perhaps that will go viral and others will sample too.

  13. Connie says:

    They are doing it in Tacoma. There is an idea that sampling at different access points could reveal hot spots otherwise unknown.


  14. centrist says:

    Interesting data-point. But one point is neither compelling, nor a trend. It’ll be interesting to see the result for the second sampling.
    As far as the question posed, belief won’t give an answer. We have data about this thing, but no real information yet.
    Meanwhile, the prudent thing is to practice the basics– stay clean, minimize contact.

    • Stanley Poulet says:

      Everyone knows you only need one data point and you can extrapolate from there.

      • centrist says:

        “Everybody….” and “Everyone…”
        Must be a sharp crowd indeed to to draw conclusions from a single point.
        I’ve found that the only udeful single-point is the tip of a blade.
        Nicely done

  15. Ean says:

    Sounds interesting. I’d be interested in their sampling methodology and error estimate. Seems not a ton is know about this particular corona virus and one particular sample could indicate an individual with high viral loads or could indicate 1500 people with average viral loads. Seems like the kind of epidemiological survey that needs many years and other sampling methods to accurately calibrate. Also if I am not mistaken they are testing for the active virus meaning people that have had the virus and since recovered wouldn’t have much if any virus in their stool. Nonetheless fascinating stuff, thanks for posting HH.

  16. William Ayers says:

    I’m late here to comment but I feel the need to say thanks to Hasso for this article and all his work in general! Thanks Hasso, much appreciated to say the least!

  17. greg says:

    There can be little doubt that without the lock-down there would be more widespread infection. Yes, most people have mild symptoms, but a large percentage (~5%) have severe complications, even younger and healthy ones. And those complications can last a long time, and cause damage to many different parts of the body from the reports we’re seeing. The reports also indicate that of the resolved cases, of those with severe symptoms, a large percentage, so far have been deaths (up to 20%).

    Anyone who thinks we should open up now is willing to kill lots of people. Yes, we need to support people who need it, instead of giving all the money to the top 1%. And we need to conduct testing to actually determine those that need treatment and quarantine.

    Why are we not testing?

  18. Sidney Cooper says:

    Statistical Quality Control models decades old require 8 data points for models built for manufacturing process to confirm whether a product is in or out of control and in or out of spec. The event timeline for data collection is much shorter than the one COVID-19 is forcing upon us. Patience need not be in short supply for proper data collection as long as comments about those doing the work remain civil. Or is this comment field crowded with hidden epidemiologists?


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