Dozens of Colorado wastewater plants are reporting COVID-19 cases as cases surge over summer


More than 40 utilities across the state have reported a steady increase in coronavirus detected in wastewater. Only three have reported a decline, according to the state's COVID-19 dashboard.

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said the increase is likely being driven by newly circulating variants that are more dominant than older strains.

“This time of year when the weather gets very hot, people go indoors, and we know that indoor environment promotes transmission of this virus,” he said.

The number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases rose this week from 87 to 95. That number, closely watched as a sign of a rise in the disease in the broader community, has remained below 100 since mid-March. It fell to 73 in mid-May but has risen since then.

Besides the number of hospitalized patients, nearly all other COVID-19 statistics are rising, including cases and positivity rates, according to the state's website.

In Colorado's most recent data from May, more than 35 variants were circulating, with strains called JN and KP making up nearly half of the variants detected through genome sequencing. Similar trends are being reported in national data, as well as the emergence of a new variant called LB.1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

“They're just extremely contagious. There's no evidence that they're more deadly,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor and expert on infectious diseases at UC Berkeley. “So it's a much riskier time now for high-risk people than it was in April or May.”

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the U.S. this summer, and increases in wastewater have been reported elsewhere in Western states.

“We are experiencing a summer surge. I wouldn't call it a surge at this point, but we are experiencing a summer surge with much lower numbers,” Swartzberg said. “There's no doubt that particularly the West, which includes both Colorado and California, are some of the areas with the highest numbers in the country, a little bit of New England as well.”

Herlihy disagrees about the semantics.

“We're definitely in the midst of a summer surge in COVID cases. That's not unusual. For most of the summer since the pandemic started, we've actually seen a surge in infections,” Herlihy said.

Whether you call it a summer surge or a summer boom, this increase is clear and echoes trends elsewhere in the US.

Last summer was actually an exception, where Colorado didn’t really see a pronounced wave of COVID during the summer.

“I think we’re still trying to understand the patterns and the seasonality of this virus, but it does appear to be on the rise right now,” Herlihy said.

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