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Coronavirus levels rising in R.I. wastewater

“It’s telling us that COVID has not left us,” Dr. Pablo Rodriguez said. “It’s still with us, and the new variants are definitely creating a spike in new infections.”

Vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine rest on a table at Bucklin Park in Providence in 2021.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — As the year draws to a close, coronavirus concentrations in Rhode Island’s wastewater are surging, according to the most recent federal data.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses the National Wastewater Surveillance System as an “early warning” system that allows communities to act to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

And in Rhode Island, the warning is now clear: From Dec. 3 to Dec. 17, three wastewater treatment plants in Rhode Island had coronavirus levels at 80 to 100 percent of the highest levels detected at those sites, and five other treatment plants had 60 to 79 percent of past levels. Two other testing sites are new, so they have no comparative data.


“It’s telling us that COVID has not left us,” said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a public health advocate and host of “Nuestra Salud” on Latina 100.3 FM. “It’s still with us, and the new variants are definitely creating a spike in new infections.”

A Rhode Island Department of Health chart showing coronavirus levels in waste water over the past year. The two-week gap in November/December was because the US Centers for Disease Control changed vendors.Rhode Island Department of Health

The coronavirus is spreading more than many people realize, he said. These days, fewer people are getting tested and those who do often take the tests at home and don’t share the results with the Department of Health, he said.

“So at this point, the best measure is to watch the wastewater,” Rodriguez said. “Hospital admissions are the next shoe to drop.”

A Rhode Island Department of Health chart shows COVID-19 hospital admissions.Rhode Island Department of Health

Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, said, “Over the last few weeks, we have seen increases across all our metrics, including wastewater. Our modeling anticipated a small increase around this time, a few weeks after Thanksgiving, and as people are having holiday gatherings.”

Rhode Island’s COVID-19 data will not be updated this week. Data will be updated again on Jan. 4.

But according to the most recent data, Wendelken said, the increase is similar to those seen over the last few years in Rhode Island at this time. The state’s hospital admission level remains in the “low” tier, and the wastewater levels remain lower than where they were at this time last year, he noted.


Still, Wendelken said, “This is a reminder that people need to be taking prevention measures, especially this time of year.”

The Department of Health recommends:

  • If you are not feeling well, do not attend holiday gatherings for New Year’s (or other gatherings).
  • Vaccination is particularly important for older adults and people with underlying health issues, including weakened immune systems, diabetes, obesity, asthma, cancer, and heart or lung disease.
  • The 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for everyone older than six months. Additionally, everyone older than 6 months of age should get vaccinated against the flu every year. And finally, RSV vaccine is available for adults 60 years of age and older and for infants.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work, and school.
  • Keep children home from daycare or school who have fever, especially with a cough, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, congestion, runny nose, or sore throat, until they are fever-free for 24 hours without medications that reduce fever.
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have any of the classic symptoms, like fever or chills, a runny nose, a cough, achiness, or loss of taste or smell.

Rodriguez emphasized that anyone with symptoms should get tested immediately.

“That is the most important thing,” he said. “I see people coughing — they should not go out unless they have tested themselves and made sure it’s not COVID. If it’s a cold, it’s a cold. But you should not assume that, ‘Oh, this doesn’t seem like COVID.’ If you have any cold or flu symptoms, you should get tested.”

The good news, Rodriguez said, is that many more people have immunity now, compared to when the pandemic began. He estimated that 90 percent of people have been previously infected or vaccinated. “So we have that, as much as herd immunity is going to help,” he said.

But the new, highly contagious COVID-19 variant, called JN.1, makes previous vaccinations ineffective, Rodriguez said.

So, he urged those older than 65 and those with immune deficiencies and chronic conditions to get the latest vaccine. “The vaccine will not prevent you from getting COVID,” he said, “but it will help prevent you from dying or being hospitalized or getting post-COVID syndrome.”

The bad news, Rodriguez said, is that just 15 percent of Rhode Island residents have received the latest vaccine booster.


A Rhode Island Department of Health chart shows 15 percent of Rhode Island residents have received the latest COVID-19 vaccine.Rhode Island Department of Health

That’s down from the nearly 50 percent uptake for the first booster shot in 2021 and 25 percent for the bivalent booster at this time last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the country, vaccination rates are so low for influenza, RSV, and COVID-19 that the CDC has issued a health advisory warning the situation could lead to more severe illnesses and overburdened hospitals in the weeks ahead.

In Massachusetts, the amount of the virus found in wastewater levels has roughly doubled since Thanksgiving and hospital admissions are up in several counties. The amount of COVID-19 in wastewater across the city of Boston rose by 23 percent over two weeks.

Though the latest version of booster shots confers broad protection against a new, highly contagious variant that is expected to gain dominance in the coming weeks, just 17 percent of Massachusetts residents have received it, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Public Health.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.