The Westchester County executive says the county is working with CUNY to study wastewater for COVID-19. The hope is to detect spikes in coronavirus infections weeks before clinical diagnoses. Separately, the county executive is rolling out plans so that November elections run smoothly.
The Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities is partnering with the City University of New York (CUNY) to study the wastewater at county treatment plants to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on large urban areas. Democratic County Executive George Latimer says the analysis could help in identifying hotspots before seeing a spike in COVID cases.
“It is a wastewater treatment study to determine the incidence of COVID-19 in our wastewater,” Latimer says. “This is not a topic to discuss at the dinner table while you’re having dinner but what it is is going through the sewage that’s generated — wastewater is the nicer way to call it — that’s generated by all of us. And there are ways to test that output from a community to determine what the incidence of COVID infection and to identify and then address some of those areas.”
He says the technology has been used in Europe. Meantime, Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, whose 18th District includes a piece of Westchester is calling on the White House to expedite funding opportunities for COVID-19 testing of wastewater. He wrote to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; Director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci; and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, asking them to cut through red tape and help states and localities test wastewater for COVID-19. Maloney says there are nearly 15,000 wastewater treatment plants throughout the U.S., covering nearly 75 percent of the country’s population. Recently, it has been discovered that traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be detected in fecal matter, and, therefore, in sewage collected at wastewater treatment plants.
Separately, Latimer says the county Board of Elections faced some hurdles in the June primary elections as school board elections and others were moved to June because of the pandemic
“Come this November with the presidential race, which is always the greatest turnout race in any four-year cycle, we face some very significant concerns about making sure that we have a smoothly run election,” Latimer says.
He notes the county Board of Elections reports to the state Board of Elections.
“So, knowing that we had a difficult time in June, for a number of different reasons, some of which were outside of our control and some of which we can refine by the way we operate ourselves. We made an offer two weeks ago to the Board of Elections, and the two commissioners, one Republican, one Democrat, of different actions the county administration would take that we thought would be helpful,” Latimer says. “The county Board of Legislators, as we speak, is deliberating over whether or not to purchase new voting machines, which is one of those pivotal issues.”
Latimer has offered four actions.
“We offered to help them recruit additional polling place inspectors by working through that portion of the county workforce that will be not working on Election Day and therefore eligible to be poll inspectors,” says Latimer.
He says many poll inspectors aren’t comfortable working during the COVID pandemic. Latimer is also offering replacement polling sites, as some of the usual ones will be not accessible during the pandemic, such as those inside nursing homes and senior centers. He has offered a bipartisan team to work with the county Board of Elections to help identify and secure alternate polling sites for November. Latimer also offered to help with a marketing plan to promote early voting.
“We’ve had early voting in elections now in 2019, in the November elections and then in the primaries of 2020 in June. Early voting has been embraced in Westchester County. We were the third most populated number of votes for early voting, and we’re probably about the eighth largest county, so we outperformed a number of other counties that are much larger than we are in the state, and, as a percentage of turnout, highest in the state,” says Latimer. “However, we can do better.”
“And then the final thing is that we’re prepared to assist with having temporary staffing to make sure that requests for absentee ballots, and then the ballots themselves, get mailed out in sufficient time frame so that everybody has it well before election,” says Latimer. “This is a difficult task. It was thrown at the Board of Elections late in the game, the pandemic when it broke in March.”
Now, with more time to prep, Latimer hopes the November elections will have few hitches.
Latimer, who, in the past month, has turned to weekly COVID briefings from daily ones, says he may deliver briefings more frequently if and when K-12 schools reopen to students in-person. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he would announce a school reopening decision in early August.
“And if he does open the schools, he can open the schools with some type of format that involves partial attendance, it could be on alternate weeks, it could be alternate days of a week. All of that is yet to be known, but we are on a regular basis with a working group of county representatives, people from our Department of Health, our DPW, our, a host of our different… our mental health departments working with the K-12 school superintendents and trying to be ready for opening school should the decision be made to go ahead with opening,” Latimer says. “Contact tracing becomes important in those situations. The county Department of Health making decisions about what to do when a teacher or a student tests positive, what to do in a classroom, in a building.”
Meantime, for the rest of the summer, Latimer says officials are keeping an eye on any spike resulting from vacationing Westchester residents upon their return and visitors from outside New York.