PITTSFIELD — Looking at the daily coronavirus case data for Pittsfield over the last two months, residents might have missed what the city’s Health Director Andy Cambi this week characterized as two “major spikes.”
That’s because the daily case reports — the metric that measures the average number of daily COVID cases per 100,000 people over the last 14-days — is being fed less and less good data.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, the hospital and health department testing regimens that made the daily case reports valuable are being replaced by at-home test kits — generating results that are less likely to make their way into these reports.
That has public health officials and decision-makers relying, now more than ever, on a different source of data: the city’s wastewater.
So while the daily case count has remained fairly level, wastewater testing revealed two periods — in late September and mid-October — during which the amount of virus increased significantly.
During Wednesday night’s Board of Health meeting, board member Dr. Jeffrey Leppo called the daily case count “a shadow of what is going on” and member Brad Gordon said the wastewater data was “really the only accurate metric.”
Multiple times a week city officials send wastewater samples from the city’s wastewater treatment plant to BioBot Analytics. The Cambridge-based company sends back a report letting the city know how much genetic information from the coronavirus is present in a liter of wastewater.
“Our wastewater [data] is completely different from what we saw in our daily case counts,” Cambi said. “This is a true reflection of what we’re seeing as far as the virus concentration in our population.”
“It does not compare with what we saw at the beginning of the year, but we definitely saw those two major spikes throughout this fall season,” he added.
Pittsfield is in the “red” zone for COVID-19, after the city’s positivity rate went above 5 percent, as it did April 22.
Data from the wastewater testing saw high points on Sept. 25 — when the number of coronavirus RNA copies per liter hit about 2.2 million copies per liter — and on Oct. 13 — when the concentration hit 2.66 million copies per liter. Between the surges, the wastewater concentration dropped to 604,000 copies per liter on Sept. 29.
For comparison, the previous low point in terms of coronavirus concentration in the wastewater was about 12,000 coronavirus RNA copies per liter on May 25, 2021. The high point to date in the city’s wastewater concentration data was 6.31 million copies per liter on Dec. 27, 2021.
City health officials have previously said that when wastewater concentrations increase, they typically see a similar trend increase in the city’s daily coronavirus case count one to two weeks later. Though with the decline in reporting, case data showed less dramatic change after these recent spikes.
Throughout October, the average daily case rate has fluctuated between an average 42.9 daily cases per 100,000 people in the 14-days on Oct. 6 to an average of 31.04 daily cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days on Oct. 23.
Even with the local data picture becoming increasingly imperfect, the virus is still making itself known to residents and the health professionals treating them.
The Berkshire Eagle sat down this week with Dr. James Lederer of Berkshire Medical Center to discuss COVID-19 trends, the start of the flu season and what people can do to protect their health.
The most recent state coronavirus data for Berkshire County reports there were 420 new cases and three new deaths from Oct. 9 to Oct. 22.
Cambi said that many of the calls into the Health Department are from people experiencing their first coronavirus case.
The health director reiterated to the board that the department remains dedicated to helping residents who get sick. Cambi said that the department has an ample supply of at-home coronavirus test kits and is continuing its contract tracing efforts for the city’s elderly and youth populations.