COVID-19 wastewater surveillance program prevents outbreaks at juvenile detention centers

Coronavirus New Mexico

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) -A potential COVID outbreak at a New Mexico juvenile detention center has been stopped thanks to a unique program launched by the state which traces COVID-19 through the correctional center’s sewage system.  

Fighting COVID from below the ground, a program by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is designed to stop outbreaks before they start appears to be working. Early last month, the NMED launched a COVID-19 wastewater surveillance program ultimately testing the sewage from jails, prisons, and New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Family Department (CYFD) group living facilities.

“Individuals who are infected with COVID, when they go to the bathroom the virus can be detected in their feces,” said Maddy Hayden with the NMED. “And that’s regardless if they’re symptomatic or not. It also can be detected before they are infectious.”

Late last month, they got a hit. The virus was detected in the wastewater at the J. Paul Taylor Juvenile Detention Center in Las Cruces. The environment department immediately notified the facility and they were able to test more than 100 clients and staff.

“Identify where the virus is at and be sure that we then take the appropriate measure to isolate the individuals to contain any spread that could occur,” said Tamera Marcantel, with CYFD. It turns out, there was an asymptomatic person working at the facility and that person was able to isolate preventing a massive outbreak there.

“We focus on these congregate facilities because once COVID gets in it’s so hard to control. With residents and staff working. And living so closely together,” said Hayden. 

At the Southern New Mexico correctional facility near Las Cruces, they were able to detect traces of the virus spiking from December 17th to the 23rd. They informed the facility of the trend which resulted in more testing and people going into quarantine. By the 28th, numbers started to go back down.

Officials said this is a great tool in the fight against the pandemic. “The program really serves as an early warning system,” said Hayden. The NMED is funding this program through the federal CARES Act and hopes to expand it throughout the state.

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