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UPDATED Feb 25: For the past 12 weeks, Covid-19 wastewater numbers for Middlesex County, where Arlington is located, have been in four digits. The most recent publicly reported reading, for Feb. 17, was 1,420, down from the previous week's 1,530, which was down from Feb. 3's reading of 2,033. All are much higher than any from a year ago, February 2023, when the number never rose above 900.

The nationwide average for Feb. 17, 2024, is 929, per Biobot Analytics of Cambridge.

Scientific American did a major article in early February with a World Health Organization official who, unlike many other observers, still uses the term "pandemic." "If we look at wastewater estimates, the actual circulation [of SARS-CoV-2] is somewhere between two and 20 times higher than what’s actually being reported by countries," according to the interview with Maria Van Kerkhove, interim director of the WHO’s Department of Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention.

 The county's overall high since Covid-19 began circulating in the United States almost four years ago was  Jan. 2, 2022, at 3,235.

Out of the counties in the commonwealth now regularly reporting, for Feb. 17, 2024, the numbers from Biobot were as follows: Barnstable, no report; Berkshire, 1,622; Essex, 1,863; Franklin, 1,364; Hampshire, 1,284; Middlesex, 1,420; Nantucket, 703; Plymouth, 1,451; Suffolk, 782; and Worcester, 1,127. Barnstable has not reported for several weeks; Bristol and Hampden's charts no longer appear; Dukes and Norfolk have never been monitored by Biobot Analytics.

The nationwide average on Feb. 3 was 892.

Wastewater: not altogether a waste

After a three-month hiatus that began in early October when the county's numbers were not being regularly posted online, this column is back with a running tally of Covid-19 incidence regionally, based on wastewater analysis by Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics, listed in reverse chronological order toward the end of this ongoing column.

At the end of the column, following the figures, is an extended academic explanation of why most scientists consider wastewater analysis statistics valuable data. More simply put, many mainstream experts consider wastewater a particularly good metric because samples are anonymous, involuntary and universal. Even more colloquially, longtime Arlington government leader Paul Schlichtman put it bluntly -- but correctly -- some time ago, concerning the metric's overall usefulness, when he declared, "You can't hide from your toilet."

Biobot's county-by-county numbers over the past 90 days generally track with the company's wastewater readings from Deer Island, near Winthrop, which shows results from Arlington and some other Middlesex County communities combined with those of Boston and many North Shore and South Shore municipalities. Deer Island's chart also shows that the infection trend had been steadily upward since early fall but has declined somewhat recently.

This also is essentially what the commonwealth's weekly "dashboard" shows for medically confirmed cases -- these are up virtually every week since Nov. 1. The text provides this context: "COVID-19 testing patterns have changed over time. Current case counts includes reports of people tested with a molecular test (confirmed cases) and those tested by a health care provider using an antigen test (probable cases). Individuals testing themselves using at-home antigen tests are not included. Case counts represent only a portion of people with COVID-19 and should be interpreted with caution. Current case counts should not be compared to earlier parts of the pandemic."

Concern globally about Covid

People are still dying of Covid-19; and PBS reports that many authorities are concerned both that less than a quarter of the population has received the latest vaccine and also that some sources continue to actively spread misinformation about what vaccines are, and do.

The World Health Organization reported nearly 10,000 deaths in December alone but noted that this is based not on all countries on Earth but, rather, on fewer than 50, mostly Westernized, nations, who have been reliably reporting in to the WHO. There was also a 42 percent increase in hospitalizations and a 62 percent increase in ICU admissions from November to December. WHO officials note that the situation is not nearly as bad as years ago but still emphasize the standard advice on precautions, including testing, vaccinating, wearing masks and ensuring that indoor areas are well ventilated.

Starting Sept. 25, in anticipation of the fall/winter rise in cases that has in fact come to pass, the U.S. government again made a limited number of Covid-19 home-test kits available for free for those who request them. In September, the federal government in approved the most recent Covid-19 vaccine for most people ages 6 months and older; many in the local area have received it.

Because of the uptick in illness, since the first of the year, emergency and healthcare workers in New York City and in some other cities, counties and states have been required to wear masks on the job.

What the numbers specifically mean

The lowest readings since Biobot began tracking Middlesex County more than three years ago occurred in June-July of 2021, with the June 2, 2021, data point being 2. The highest in the county was slightly more than two years ago, on Jan. 2, 2022: 3,235.

All the numbers cited here represent Covid-19 virus concentration per mililiter of wastewater; however, this is not the same as the total number of Covid-19 infections, which is impossible to know with any accuracy, as explained further below.

In broad terms, historically, Covid counts tend to be lower in warmer months, when people are more likely to be outside, and higher in colder months, when people spend more time together indoors. However, the county experienced temporary spikes into four digits three times last year -- in early April, late July and early October.

The longest stretch of high numbers recently in Middlesex County, which is presented in bold type further down, ran from Nov. 30, 2022, through Jan. 18, 2023. 

A bit about Biobot

Biobot Analytics is a relatively new, female-led firm that samples and analyzes wastewater nationwide. Biobot tests, analyzes and reports Covid-19 data for 48 states, all except for Michigan and Minnesota, and statistics are also listed for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Throughout the United States, Biobot reports numbers county-by-county within each state, displaying them graphically and comparing them to the U.S. average for each week. Most counties in Massachusetts are regularly monitored; however, this is not true in every state. For some localities, the percentage of known variants of the virus for a given week are also shown.

As of August 2022 the Town of Arlington no longer routinely tested for Covid-19 nor compiled statistics about local infection rates, making Biobot’s information possibly the best and most understandable of the information easily available to the general public. 

Other metrics may be low

Many observers contend that other Covid-19 statistics, being primarily based on public testing sites, physician notes and hospital records, may be significantly undercounting the true total number of infections, especially as asymptomatic individuals rarely are accounted for. This is because people with non-existent, mild or moderate symptoms of possible Covid-19 sometimes cannot or will not seek medical attention, cannot or will not use nasal-swab-based home tests, or cannot or will not report their positive test results to authorities.

Biobot’s home page demonstrates the national picture. This page if one scrolls down a bit and looks to the left side can be used to show the graphs and numbers for all U.S. states save Michigan; these graphs also compare each monitored county to the national picture for the same timeframes. One may choose to see the charts/numbers for the past six weeks, the past six months or since March 2020 when the pandemic reached the United States.

Recent numbers to date for Middlesex County, Mass., per Biobot Analytics are as follows, with figures in quadruple digits given in bold:

 

Feb.17,2024: 1,420

Feb.10,2024: 1,530

      Feb.3,2024: 2,033

Jan. 27,2024: 1,280

Jan.20,2024: 1,079

Jan.13,2024: 1,755

Jan.6,2024: 1,885

Dec.30,2023: 1,772

Dec.23,2023: 1,948

Dec.16,2023: 1,708

Dec. 9,2023: 1,294

Dec. 2,2023: 1,403

Nov.25,2023: 982

 Nov.18,2023: 489

Nov.11,2023: 481

 Nov.4,2023: 563

 Oct.28,2023: 648

 Oct.21,2023: 936

Oct.14,2023: 887

Oct.7,2023: 1,039

 Sept. 27, 2023: no report

 Sept. 20, 2023: no report

Sept. 13, 2023: 988

Sept. 6, 2023: 1,296

Aug. 30, 2023: 782

Aug. 23, 2023: 660

Aug. 16, 2023: 747

 Aug. 9, 2023: 592

Aug. 2, 2023: 674

July 26, 2023: 1,251

 July 19, 2023: 348

July 12, 2023: 425

July 5, 2023: 494

June 28, 2023: 372

June 21, 2023: 212

June 14, 2023: 180

June 7, 2023: 174

May 31, 2023: 306

May 24, 2023: 306

May 17, 2023: 447

May 10, 2023: 211

May 3, 2023: 236

April 27, 2023: 386

April 19, 2023: 223

April 12, 2023: 258

April 5, 2023: 420

March 29, 2023: 387

March 22, 2023: 366

March 15, 2023: 588

March 8, 2023: 438

March 1, 2023: 435

Feb. 22, 2023: 542

Feb. 15, 2023: 678

Feb. 8, 2023: 881

Feb. 1, 2023: 774

Jan. 25, 2023: 890

Jan. 18, 2023: 1,118

Jan. 11, 2023: 1,461

Jan. 4, 2023: 1,879

Dec. 28, 2022: 2,452

Dec. 21, 2022: 2,145

Dec. 14, 2022: 2,411

Dec. 7, 2022: 1,417

Nov. 30, 2022: 1,347

Nov. 23, 2022: 867

Nov. 16, 2022: 771

Nov. 9, 2022: 695

A page from the website of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health explains the significance of wastewater analysis as follows: "The amount of virus that a person has in their stool and the length of time that they have virus in their stool varies. Because of this, the amount of virus measured in wastewater does not tell us the total number of cases in an area and does not tell us the amount of increase or decrease in cases in communities. However, if the amount of virus in wastewater increases or decreases over several time points, that information shows that cases are either increasing or decreasing in the community. Importantly, wastewater data can provide an early warning about increasing cases, since virus will show up in wastewater several days, maybe even a week, before positive test numbers start to increase." 


Jan. 6, 2023: Majority at town public schools wear masks, complying with ‘strong recommendation’

This column by YourArlington Editor Judith Pfeffer was first published Jan. 7, 2023. It was updated Jan. 9 to change the headline for greater accuracy and Jan. 10 to state what Biobot Analytics measures; to note that the weekly list is presented toward the end of the article; and to provide additional context. It was updated Jan. 12 to post the latest available weekly number and to include at the end a paragraph from a state website describing the scientific importance of wastewater analysis. It has since been updated weekly from Jan. 19 through May 5, with the latest data reported publicly by Biobot Analytics of Cambridge, Mass. The text was corrected May, 6, to give the current national average rate, and May 9, to report results for four commonwealth counties whose numbers were not posted as soon as those of the other eight. It then was updated May 14, 22 and 31; June 12, 15, 19, 24; July 2, 7, 14, 22, 28 and July 31; Aug. 4, 12, 18 and Aug. 25; Sept. 6, 13, 24 and 26; Oct. 9; then again weekly in January 2024, most recently Feb. 25.