Dawnix Water Services Inc. and Haines Junction staff during the COVID-19 wastewater sampler installation. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/Submitted)

Dawnix Water Services Inc. and Haines Junction staff during the COVID-19 wastewater sampler installation. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/Submitted)

Haines Junction starting wastewater surveillance to track COVID-19

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and Haines Junction governments take on testing in Haines Junction

Local governments are taking sewage testing for COVID-19 into their own hands, given the Yukon government has refused to do it.

In a June 20 release, the governments of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) and Haines Junction are partnering with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) on a wastewater screening program. The municipal and First Nations governments are following other territories and provinces across Canada when it comes to monitoring wastewater for the coronavirus.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the illness can be found in the feces of infected people. Sewage monitoring can provide an early warning of COVID-19 in a community or setting, since people can be infected without showing any symptoms and they can spread it without knowing it. Test samples taken from communities can boost the ability of local public health units to identify and deal with potential outbreaks.

Scientists with the federal government have developed a pan-Canadian wastewater network to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

CAFN Chief Steve Smith (Kaaxnox, Dän nätthe äda) said in a June 27 email that CAFN looks forward to seeing screening grow in the Yukon.

“Because most wastewater systems are operated by municipalities, it is likely local governments will need to take the lead in setting up these programs,” Smith said. He said the First Nations had connected with the federal agency through the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) COVID-19 team to create a rapid testing program last fall and then came up with the wastewater program.

The surveillance program being operated out of Haines Junction took its first samples mid-June. Smith said all buildings connected to the wastewater system within the municipal boundaries of Haines Junction are included.

Haines Junction is now testing wastewater for COVID-19. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/Submitted)

Haines Junction is now testing wastewater for COVID-19. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/Submitted)

The testing will collect samples two to three times each week using an auto-sampler at the lift station. Those samples will be sent to the federal agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for analysis, much like other samples from northern, remote and isolated communities outside the Yukon.

In an email on behalf of PHAC, communications advisor Anna Maddison said the Haines Junction program is expected to cost $90,000 per year as part of the federal government’s efforts to encourage more municipalities and locations to get in on wastewater surveillance as an early warning sign for public health action and decisions.

According to the release, all equipment and screening is being provided by the federal agency at no cost to the First Nations and the village.

The gear was installed by a CAFN citizen-owned business called Dawnix Water Services Inc.

Jon Widney owns the private company, which he said deals with water-holding tanks such as household cisterns and community reservoirs and water treatment-related needs.

Widney explained he installed the system that collects all of the town’s community wastewater and pumps it up to their lagoon system, with a pump determining the speed of wastewater and sending it into a sampling container a few times each week.

“It’s great to be part of something new,” he said.

“This is another branch that our corporation can grow on.”

Widney said he wonders where this program could lead, particularly if it is to protect people who are most susceptible to serious outbreaks.

“Whether it’s COVID-19 or diseases down the road, I mean, it’s a good starting point to monitor viral loads in wastewater so they can predetermine a COVID-19 spike in coming weeks or days,” he said.

Donna Istchenko, the village’s treasurer, said by email on June 22 that Haines Junction was asked to participate by allowing necessary access to the lift station. Istchenko said the village’s public works department will be taking samples for the first few weeks until a contractor is hired.

READ MORE: Opposition parties try to flush out Yukon government’s decision against COVID-19 wastewater testing

Dr. Sudit Ranade has been appointed the Yukon’s new chief medical officer of health. Ranade starts his new gig in the territory on July 4 after working the last decade for Ontario’s Lambton Public Health. Lambton County is part of the province’s wastewater surveillance program.

According to a June 30 email statement, the provincial government has put in more than $47 million toward wastewater surveillance. That covers sampling research and analysis in over 70 municipalities served by all 34 public health units across the province.

Epidemiologist Siobhan Churchill, who works for Lambton’s public health authority, said the local wastewater signal for COVID-19 shows a high degree of variability and has been difficult to interpret.

“This variability may be attributable to the use of a single sampling location, sampling frequency or other sewage-system specific factors,” she said. “As the use of wastewater surveillance scales up provincially, we look forward to exploring new applications for this data.”

In Ranade’s April 6 address to Lambton county council, he said local case counts continued to be underestimated because his office only sees the data gathered in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

“Every number that we get now, in terms of cases, think of it as an underestimate, so we look at some other signals,” he said.

Ranade noted at the time that province-wide wastewater testing for the virus had been moving up, which he said is an indication that case numbers were rising, and hospitalizations in Ontario were also going up, which indicates the severity of illess that typically comes late over the course of it.

“What you have to look at now is a few things,” he said, adding that those things start with whether the hospital system can function under the current strain of the virus and recognizing there will be waves of more and less illess in the population, as long as there are no new variants.

“The caveat is that most of the world remains unvaccinated, and as long as that is true, you create conditions under which new variants could arise,” he said.

When asked by a reporter about wastewater testing during a COVID-19 briefing on April 6, the Yukon’s acting medical officer of health Dr. Jesse Kancir said that tool was not something the Yukon has relied on and he is “confident” in how surveillance has happened in the territory.

A March 2021 Yukon government document outlines the tools used as part of the territory’s public health efforts to mitigate COVID-19 risk. The section on expanded testing states wastewater surveillance is “not yet implemented, still under consideration and evaluation.”

“We believe that so far through the pandemic we haven’t had to rely on that statistic to be able to trace and to curb the spread of the virus in Yukon,” Premier Sandy Silver said during the COVID-19 update on April 6.

The Yukon Party and Yukon NDP each raised questions about the Yukon government’s decision against testing wastewater for COVID-19 during the spring legislature session.

NDP Leader Kate White gave notice of two wastewater-related motions to the Yukon Legislative Assembly.

The first motion urges the Yukon government to support municipal and First Nation governments with testing wastewater systems for COVID-19. The second motion calls on the government to create a central data collection system for wastewater test results and make the information publicly available through its online COVID-19 dashboard.

Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon said by phone June 27 he hopes this new direction in one region of the territory will help inform the picture of what the COVID-19 situation is on the ground.

“I do wish that the Yukon government had done this earlier,” he said.

In a June 25 statement, the Yukon’s department of Health and Social Services acknowledged the program being led by CAFN and Haines Junction.

“Their work will help us better understand how Yukon government can support wastewater surveillance initiatives in the territory,” reads the statement, adding that CYFN is “planning to work towards supporting other Yukon communities to start waste water surveillance programs, if they are interested in doing so.”

The statement said the territorial government recently applied for funding — an amount that is too early to determine — on behalf of CYFN to get federal dollars allocated for wastewater surveillance. If it goes through, that money would be transferred to CYFN to set up screening in other Yukon communities.

“In order to avoid duplicating efforts, Yukon government wants to support the existing work being undertaken by CYFN,” the department said.

In the statement, to detect circulating variants, the government currently sends about 10 to 15 lab-based PCR samples per week to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to undergo random sampling for whole genome sequencing.

Smith said he has heard about and anticipates working with other Yukon communities on the wastewater monitoring front.

Contact Dana Hatherly at dana.hatherly@yukon-news.com