Kartik Chandran doesn’t have a crystal ball inside his lab at Columbia University.

But the engineering professor based in the Bronx has accurately predicted the latest COVID-19 infection trends in New Jersey’s most populated region — and almost a month before they unfolded.

“The way science works, seeing the presence of COVID-19 in our data two to three weeks before the positive case (numbers) come in can be both scary and exciting,” Chandran said. “It’s scary because we don’t know what the next disease might show up that we have to deal with.

“And it’s exciting because it allows us to make progress that can actually benefit human health.”

His work has grown even more critical as new coronavirus cases once again rise, fueled by the highly contagious stealth omicron (BA.2) variant. Dramatic undercounts now plague official infection totals despite the increasing numbers, experts say, pointing to decreased testing overall and the growing use of at-home rapid kits, whose results are not reported to the state.

Only 7% of positive coronavirus cases in the U.S. are being detected, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated last week. That means case rates are actually 14.5 times higher than officially reported.

Wastewater surveillance — as patchwork as it is — just might be New Jersey’s only early warning system.

While COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that’s mainly transmissible through coughing, sneezing, talking and breathing, health officials say between 40% and 80% of infected people shed the coronavirus in their feces.

It’s why watershed treatment plants such as the one Chandran has been studying have become an important tool for monitoring the pandemic.

Chandran has been sampling wastewater from sewer-shed facilities in Little Ferry and Edgewater since partnering with the Bergen County Utilities Authority in May 2020, during the initial coronavirus wave.

“Global and United States studies have shown that this type of monitoring can provide an early indication up to two weeks of increases or decreases in COVID cases in an area,” Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco said at the time.

Nearly two years later, Chandran has been pleased with the results of the study. In fact, he said his researchers were able to predict the current rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the state.

“The numbers from our watershed sampling data started increasing in winter 2022, and that’s when we had the surge (of omicron cases),” Chandran said. “It bottomed out in early March, and then the numbers started to trend back up again in recent weeks.”

New Jersey reported 1,527 new confirmed positive tests Sunday as hospitalizations continued to increase over the weekend, reaching 462 patients. The state’s seven-day average for new confirmed cases was 1,752, up 123% from a month ago.

The level of community spread in Bergen and Morris counties was recently elevated to “medium,” according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the use of at-home test kits have been a positive step in slowing the spread COVID-19, health experts say it has complicated the gathering of precise case counts signaling community transmission.

Other factors also limit a full accounting, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cutting the number of labs it uses to search for new variants and a growing focus on hospital admissions — rather than positive tests — as the key pandemic data point.

Dr. Amy Kirby, head of the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System, says state health officials should instead use data from sewage as an “early warning system” if numbers continue to increase.

“The information generated by wastewater surveillance offers public health officials with better understanding of COVID-19 trends in communities,” she said in a February news conference. “Because increases in wastewater generally occur before corresponding increases in clinical cases, wastewater surveillance serves as an early warning system for the emergence of COVID-19 in a community.

“These data are uniquely powerful because they capture the presence of infections from people with and without symptoms. These built-in advantages can inform important public health decisions, such as where to allocate mobile testing and vaccination sites.”

The CDC has been operating the National Wastewater Surveillance System since September 2020, posting the data on its online COVID-19 tracker.

While the samples collected at the Bergen County sewer-shed facilities are studied by the Columbia researchers, New Jersey became the 38th state to participate in the National Wastewater Surveillance System in March when the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission agreed to participate in the program.

“Shedding in feces starts soon after someone is infected with the coronavirus,” said Passaic County Executive Director Gregory Tramontozzi. “Through participation in the CDC’s NWSS program, we will be able to expand our surveillance capacity and continue to serve as an early-warning system for our communities.”

Columbia’s research includes the two sewer sheds that collect wastewater from 47 Bergen County townships — serving a total population of about 580,000. The Passaic Valley treatment plant covers approximately 1.5 million residents in 48 municipalities in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Union and Passaic counties.

Chandran concedes wastewater surveillance is covering only a small fraction of New Jersey.

But he expects more sewer-shed plants to participate in studies as state officials look to provide an early warning on coronavirus trends.

“The COVID reporting from the state is based on the number of cases, and it’s never a clear snapshot since no one gets tested every day,” Chandran said. “The people who do get tested, for the most part based on human behavior, they get tested when they’re feeling some sort of symptoms.

“With the wastewater testing, we don’t get individual results, but we get a snapshot of the community population.”

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Keith Sargeant may be reached at [email protected].

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