Samples show COVID uptick in Saranac Lake

SARANAC LAKE — COVID-19 appears to be back from its summer break, just in time for the holidays.

The pandemic is over, according to the World Health Organization, but the virus continues to circulate. It does not appear to be as serious of a health concern now, as deaths from the virus have stopped locally, but it is still causing sickness.

After months of low COVID-19 detections in the Saranac Lake wastewater treatment plant, levels increased once again on Oct. 23, reaching a DNA intensity of 0.3837, an intensity it has not reached since March 15 when it reached 0.4397. In the seven months between these increases, there were brief intensities of 0.3547 in July and 0.3256 in August, but Saranac Lake hasn’t seen a consistent rise in COVID-19 intensity since spring.

Further measurements in the past week show the number dropping, with a much lower intensity of 0.1752 reported on Nov. 6.

State data on the actual number of SARS-CoV-2 gene copies — not normalized by population level, like the DNA intensity data is — shows the Oct. 23 increase is the fifth largest increase in detected SARS-CoV-2 gene copies since the plant started testing for it in April 2022. The largest period of increases came in mid- to late- 2022 with the highest point on the chart coming on Sept. 28, 2022.

Tracking COVID through wastewater

Tracking COVID-19 infections is currently much less precise than it was during the pandemic.

When hospitals and clinics were the only place to get tests and testing for the virus was more common, all positive results were reported directly to county health departments, which shared the data with the public. When at-home testing became more common, it became harder for these departments to get a real track on infection rates.

“There’s probably a lot of people who take at-home tests who don’t report that to us, because they don’t have to,” Essex County Health Department Program Coordinator Andrea Whitmarsh said. “It’s hard to say what exactly is going on out there.”

So now, many health departments rely on observing COVID-19 genes in wastewater to gauge community spread.

Saranac Lake Chief Water Wastewater Operator Dave Lewis said his office gets sent bottles every month, and twice a week staff take a sewage sample and ship it to a lab. Then, the state gets the results and shares them with the village.

“They do all the work, except for us grabbing the samples,” Lewis said.

Lewis said when he learned about the wastewater COVID-19 monitoring program, he wanted Saranac Lake to participate and opted in. His plant has been monitoring for COVID-19 since April 2022.

The wastewater plant serves a population of 6,264, according to state data. It does not account for the population who have septic wastewater.

The DOH charts can be viewed at tinyurl.com/yjwaxt4r.

The Lake Placid wastewater treatment plant started testing for COVID-19 in January 2022. The Lake Placid data shows the village is not seeing as high an increase as Saranac Lake currently. It had an increase earlier in the fall, from mid-September to early October.

The Tupper Lake wastewater treatment plant started testing for COVID-19 in July 2022 but has not logged a test with the state since August.

COVID trends

Whitmarsh said there was a slight bump in COVID-19 cases locally after schools went back into session in late August, with a correlated slight bump in hospitalizations at the time.

Fortunately, she said, the virus is not causing the levels of serious illness or death it did during the pandemic.

“I can kind of conclude, personally, that severity and risk is not high anymore because hospitalizations are down,” Whitmarsh said.

People are still getting sick, but that sickness is not as often a serious sickness. She chalked this up to a variety of factors — mostly people’s immune systems being better prepared now after vaccinations or contracting the virus in the past three years.

Whitmarsh said vaccines decrease the severity of the illness and that now that most people have had the virus more than once, their immune systems adapt and improve.

This could change in the future if there is a new more severe strain, she said, but things have been going in a good direction.

Whitmarsh said Essex County has seen 81 total fatalities attributable to COVID-19, and none recently.


Whitmarsh said ECHD is a “safety net provider” of vaccines.

“If someone is unable to be vaccinated by their own provider or a pharmacy, for whatever reason — if they don’t have insurance or if they are underinsured — they can call us and we can try to get them in to get vaccinated,” she said.

The county carries the latest Moderna vaccine, she said.

According to data from the state Department of Health, 70% of Essex County residents and 58% of Franklin County residents got the primary series of vaccines. In Essex County, the DOH says 32% of people eligible for the latest round of vaccines are up to date on their shots. In Franklin County, 26% of people eligible for the latest round of vaccines are up to date on their shots.


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