ALBANY, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — What most people don’t want to go anywhere near, the New York State Department of Health is finding use of in monitoring traces of COVID-19 in wastewater samples.

NYSDOH and the Wadsworth Center laboratory in Albany are monitoring for and analyzing samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as reports emerge of new strains.

Conducted with partners at Syracuse University and across the state, the ongoing surveillance of wastewater and its laboratory study have proven to be vital in the State’s ability to understand the spread of COVID-19 variant’s and the potential impact on the public’s health.

“While the public has returned to normal activities, the Department of Health remains vigilant for changes to the virus that could further threaten our public health,” State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said. “We continue to diligently work as new strains have emerged, with a particular focus on one highly-divergent strain being seen elsewhere.”

This comes as a new Omicron subvariant, Eris COVID-19, has been spreading and many local hospitals are now reinforcing mask mandates.

However, the strain in question that’s being monitored is another variant, BA.2.86, that’s been found in cases in Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Michigan, Virginia, and is designated a Variant Under Monitoring (VUM) by WHO.

According to the State Department of Health, BA.2.86 appears to be the most genetically different strain since the original Omicron variant, and it’s important to note these significant changes as mutations may allow the virus to avoid prior immunity.

Soon after this new strain was identified, the Wadsworth Center immediately started working on early detection efforts, transferring information to collaborators at Syracuse University who looked at wastewater data from the last six months to confirm the strain wasn’t detected in New York.

The State Department of Health says they will continue to use this process to help monitor new variants, while the Wadsworth Center is working across the state with numerous health care professionals, collaborating laboratories, to expand the pool of clinical COVID samples being analyzed.

“As we look for this new strain, it is important to note that we do not yet know if it will cause more severe disease or if it will evade prior immunity. Scientists across the globe are working to answer those questions right now,” said Wadsworth Center Laboratory of Viral Disease Chief Dr. Kirsten St. George.

NYSDOH is urging those who test positive to avoid contact with others including staying home from work, school and social activities.

The key to preventing serious illness and spread of COVID-19 is to take precautions:

  • Get vaccinated and boosted when eligible. Learn more here.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating.
  • Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and discard it in a closed container.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects.
  • And consider wearing a mask to reduce your chance of exposure.

Information on vaccines, booster doses and COVID-19 vaccine sites can be found here. More information about variants detected in New York can be found here and more information about wastewater surveillance in New York State can be found here.