HACKENSACK, N.J. — Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco announced during a special Covid-19 briefing at One Bergen County Plaza Friday that the county is entering into a partnership with Columbia University and engineering firm Aecom to monitor Covid-19 RNA in the waste water at the Bergen County Utilities Authority (BCUA) Sewer Shed.
Tedesco said a national and global study shows this type of monitoring can provide an early indication of increases or decreases in Covid-19 cases in an area by up to two weeks.
According to Acting County Administrator Julian Neals, waste water studies have been performed to determine the prevalence of disease from opioid concentrations to norovirus and measles. Now, it is useful in measuring the presence of Covid-19. He said the Bergen County Utilities Authority (BCUA) sewer shed services, based in Moonachie, serves about 47 municipalities in the county representing about 580,000 people. In March, the BCUA collaborated with Columbia University and Aecom to conduct waste water sampling for the presence of Covid-19 RNA.
“Arguably one of the most dangerous aspects of Covid-19 is that the virus is most contagious before it causes symptoms,” said Neals to reporters who were gathered outside One Bergen County Plaza Friday afternoon.
Neals added that the County would dedicate Bergen County Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act resources to engage in a more systematic and pervasive study to cover all of the meter chambers managed by the BCUA, efforts of which will “provide the best available data to identify emerging hotspots and our ability to proactively develop mitigation strategies.”
Tedesco said he hopes Governor Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will support the county’s waste water testing initiative.
Additionally, he said the county will also look into establishing infrastructure that will allow professionals the ability to track vaccine effectiveness once they become available. (Pfizer has already applied for approval to the Food and Drug Administration for a Covid-19 vaccination.) The virus that has to date claimed more than a quarter of a million lives in the United States and over a million worldwide.
“With the hope of a soon-to-be-released vaccine, we will use the waste water data as a way to track the effectiveness of the vaccine,” said Tedesco.
County hospitals along with the health and epidemiology departments, among others, will share in the data, Neals said.
“We hope to partner with other state entities and treatment plants to broaden the efforts and provide a comprehensive view on a regional and statewide basis,” said Neals. “The County Executive has made it his charge that we find the available resources in our CARES Act funds, so we can act quickly in this area before the year is out.”
Since Bergen County became the epicenter of Covid-19 in the state of New Jersey back in March, the County has worked tirelessly to contain the spread of the potentially deadly virus from closing schools and non-essential businesses indefinitely, but also helping the small business community, which Tedesco called the backbone of the County. To date, the county has awarded nearly $20 million to 2,265 businesses with another 1,500 in review to reach a total of $30 million, a figure he said the county would double via its small business program. The County has provided $4.5 million to support all 70 Bergen County municipalities that have been forced with mounting expenses as a result of the pandemic. In the last eight months, the County has also leveraged its purchasing power, Tedesco said. Over $4 million of personal protective equipment (PPE) across the county. Bergen County, he added, secured the largest regional stockpile of PPE in the state, which included more than 1.5 million N95 masks for its frontline workers. As the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps the nation, he said the county is currently assessing the needs of their next purchase. Since October, there have been more than 7,700 new Covid-19 cases, with about 30-50 new cases per day in certain municipalities, an alarming statistic he said, considering that some towns have roughly 10,000 residents.
The County has also stepped in to aid community food pantries. The Bergen County Food Security Task Force was established under the leadership of Commissioner Tracy Zur to connect local community-based food efforts with local food supplies to strengthen the food safety net for residents who rely on it. Included in these efforts were the purchase of two, 52-foot refrigerated trailers to store perishable items and three refrigerated transit vans to distribute them. The task force also helped to restock more than 65 food pantries across the County.
“This week alone, the Bergen County Food Security Task Force received over 100,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, which were distributed to over 40 food pantries and hundreds of turkeys,” Tedesco said.
In reference to testing, through a joint effort between the County and the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, a mobile testing program was established, which has become a regional model for communities across the country. To date, over 40,000 Bergen County residents have been tested for Covid-19, which came in the form of saliva testing. One week ago, the saliva testing program, he reported, processed over 1,100 tests. This past week, the county rolled out a nasal swab drive-through antigen test in Paramus which produced results in 24 hours or less. The next scheduled testing date is Tuesday, November 24. Tests for Covid-19, he said, will continue in the county for as long as they’re needed.
The county executive said an announcement will be made early next week regarding the next stage of testing to allow for the continuation of testing through the winter.
In a separate set of announcements, Tedesco said all county buildings will remain closed to the public for the remainder of the year and a re-evaluation will take place regarding reopening at the conclusion of the holiday season. All Bergen County-controlled schools, he said, will remain closed through January 19. Bergen Community College, he said, will continue remote learning until further notice, and will work out a plan with the college’s new president in regard to a reopening plan for the spring.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, Tedesco said thousands of residents’ lives have been saved following the indefinite closure of schools and non-essential businesses.
“If the numbers continue to spike as predicted, revisiting stricter courses of action will be necessary, especially where people gather in large spaces and indoors,” said Tedesco.
Tedesco is asking residents to stay home this Thanksgiving and to continue their part in reducing the spread of the virus with wearing masks, staying the CDC-required six-feet apart, frequent hand-washing and avoiding indoor gatherings, and to get tested should a resident believe they’ve been exposed to the virus.
“I understand this pandemic has been stressful and challenging. Many of us are experiencing battle fatigue. But with the hopes of the vaccine, it looks like there could be light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’re all in this together, and we will continue to be Bergen Strong.”
To locate a mobile testing location near you, go to http://bergencovidtesting.com.