Is There a Covid Wastewater Spike in New York City?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

With respect to “upticks” — Covid “upticks” going up, “plummets” going down — both Covid and the public health establishment (and the political class (and the press)) have form, well pictured in this maybe-famous chart:

(I thought this was from XKCD, but it’s the original). So when I hear “uptick,” I think, from bitter experience and with the scientists on the right, “exponential growth.” Those on the right, I will call “exponentialists.” Most everyone else is on the left, with “going down,” “under control,” and “let’s do brunch.” Of course, you can’t reverse engineer the truth out of bullshit[1], so this time around, the let’s-just-go-ahead-and-call-them minimizers might be right. Nevertheless.

So I sat up when I saw stories coming across my feed that said there was an increase in Covid[2] wastewater detected in New York City (NYC). I always keep a watchful eye on NYC, not least because it has form: New York City was the epicenter of the first 2020 wave [3], which is reasonable, given its continued status as a global entrepôt. (Not only that, we know now that Omicron could have been brewed in New York, not South Africa.) But what about the instant case? Does wastewater data show that there is an increase (“rising,” “uptick,” “rebound”) in Covid in NYC? First, I will look at the press coverage. Then, I will look at the data, and a critique of that data, and briefly conclude.

The Press Coverage

Here is a list of the headlines:

June 1: High concentrations of COVID detected at all 14 New York City wastewater treatment plants CBS New York. This story doesn’t give any sourcing for the data at all. It does, however have this graphic:

So everybody retweets the story with the graphic, and this minimizer quote:

[P]ublic health officials say it’s too early to know if it’s the start of a full-blown COVID wave.

June 1: Is COVID back in NYC? Wastewater surveillance shows virus is rising Gothamist. Gothamist actually broke the story, and it’s the pick of the litter. Gothamist gives the source of the data: It’s from the NYS Wastewater Surveillance Network. (NYWSN). They also interviewed the dashboard maintainer:

When it comes to SAR-CoV-2, “we would expect New York City to potentially go first,” said Dr. David Larsen, a Syracuse University professor who runs the New York state wastewater surveillance network dashboard

(More from Larsen later.) They also interview Biobot (Nassau County only), and give some excellent minimizer quotes:

“We look at wastewater data really over time,” said NYC health commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “We need to look at it a little bit over longer time periods to draw any important inference.”

“It’s less about worry and more about preparation. COVID is here. It’s not going anywhere. We’re living with it,” Vasan said. “We have shown that we can start to regain a sense of normalcy and rebuild our city even with COVID still circulating.”

(I’m here for rebuilding NYC, and hence I’d expect to see Vasan pushing for ventilation. But, at least after a cursory search, no.) Gothamist is also points out that wastewater testing is our only reliable proxy for the spread of infection, since testing has been eliminated (or privatized. At an average of $45 a pop!)

June 1: Uptick in COVID-19 Found in NY Wastewater. Here’s What It Could Mean NBC New York. NBC gives the dashboard and cites to Gothamist. And Gothamist’s minimizing quote from Vasan!

June 1: NYC Wastewater Suggests COVID-19 Rebound: Could This Signify A New Wave? Medical Daily. Medical Daily cites to Gothamist, links NYWSN, and uses Vasan’s minimizing quote. They also undercut wastewater testing:

Meanwhile, Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, told Gothamist that wastewater data only gives a general idea of the virus spread in the community. It does not provide a much clearer picture than lab testing data.

Right, but the prospect of using lab testing data is now zero, which one would assume [hollow laughter] that a professor of public health would know.

June 2: High concentrations of COVID detected at all 14 New York City wastewater treatment plants CBS New York. Same as June 1, and just as bad.

June 2: COVID cases could be rising in NYC based on wastewater testing data Scripps. Does not cite to Gothamist, links to NYWSN, no quote from Vasan, quotes an exponentialist (!):

Infectious disease experts say trends are what stands out in wastewater detection for contaminants and other infectious properties. While the “absolute number might be debatable, that trend is always something that makes” experts pay attention, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases specialist, told ABC News.

June 2: US COVID activity stays low, but NYC sees rise in wastewater positives CIDRAP. Shockingly bad. Granted, this is a snippet in a news summary, but there should still be a link NYWSN:

New York City’s COVID activity appears to be on the rise, with all 14 of its wastewater treatment plants showing high concentrations of the virus, according to CBS News. However, data from the NYC Health shows that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain at very low levels.

As whoever at CIDRAP “edited” this must surely have know, case data is terrible, hospitalization lags, deaths lag even more, and wastewater is the best proxy for cases we have.

So that’s the media coverage. But is the coverage correct? One expert, at least, argues not:

So, when Topol amplified Weiland, was Topol correct? Let’s look at the data.

The Data

These are the sources I have[4]. In order, I will look at CDC, Biobot, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDH), and NYS Wastewater Surveillance Network (NYWSN). The stories all cite only to NYWSN, and that is the only data source that Topol (and Weiland) consider. In all cases, I have used data that indicates trends, not absolute numbers, since that’s the question: Is Covid rising in NYC?

CDC. I am really including the CDC only to show how horrid their site is, and how hard they make it to get anything useful from it. Why on earth can’t I get an integrated view of all the counties at a reasonable size? Why can’t I drag the map around, and zoom in? Why does the server keep going down? So herewith:

Time Period: May 15, 2023 – May 29, 2023.

Biobot. I include the Biobot data mostly for grins. No knock on Biobot, but if NYC is throwing a signal, they’re not equipped to catch it. Their only site in New York is Nassau County:

Time Period: Data as of May 24.

New York State Department of Health (NYSDH)

Time Period: Data as of May 30.

NYS Wastewater Surveillance Network (NYWSN)

Time period: Last Sample, June 1.

(Again, the source everyone cites.)

So, we can draw different conclusions from the data we have. CDC says there’s only one uptick, in King’s County (I can’t imagine why Topol didn’t check them before amplifying Weiland). Biobot can’t say whether there’s an uptick or not. NYSDH says there are upticks at multiple locations (see red dots). NYWSN agrees.

I am inclined to dismiss CDC’s data, first, because they’re CDC MR SUBLIMINAL Which should be jackhammered to rubble, the rubble plowed under, and the earth salted and I don’t trust them not to game the data, not after the “Green Map”, and second, because their sampling period ends the earliest. (If you have exponential spread, even one or two days will matter, depending on how infectious the variant is.) I am inclined to agree with NYSDH and NYWSN, not least because two separate teams using different algorithms came to the same conclusion. Weiland (amplified by Topol) critiques only NYSWN, so let’s look more closely at what he says:

First, NYSDH and NYWSN agree; Weiland (and Topol) have nothing to say about NYSDH data. Second, when Weiland says “recently increased sensitivity to their methodology,” “recently” is doing much more work than a poor adverb should have to do. The original Gothamist article — which everybody should have read, including Weiland and Topol — quotes the NYWSN maintainer:

In mid-March, the city switched to a more sensitive method for detecting coronavirus in wastewater, but that switch isn’t responsible for the new uptick, [Dr. David Larsen, a Syracuse University professor who runs the New York state wastewater surveillance network said.’

I don’t buy that a methodological change in March invalidates data [breaks out calculator] two months later, especially when other confirm it. Nor do I see why Topol, with Weiland, allows “recently” to get away with all that heavy lifting. Just to confirm that Gothamist quoted Larsen accurately, here is the NYWSN site:

Data for New York City’s five boroughs are analyzed by the City Health Department. Real-time reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) was used for SARS-CoV-2 N1 gene copy determinations for samples collected August 31, 2020-March 7, 2023. Starting with samples collected on March 12,2023, digital reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction (dPCR) has been used. Due to differences in methodology, dPCR viral load values are ~10-20 times higher than RT-qPCR values. Therefore, increases in viral load between March 7th, 2023, and March 12, 2023 are due in part to changes in methods. The method change is noted on the raw gene copy plots for NYC sites with a hashed line on March 12, 2023.

The baseline changed in March. Today’s increase is relative to that new baseline. Weiland, called on this, goes straight to minimization:

So what if the levels are “low” relative to January? This is the “Under Control” stage (at left) in the graphic I led with. Sheesh.


I conclude that there is in fact a Covid uptick in NYC. So, in a massive self-own, I’ve got to throw a flag on a Betteridge’s Law violation. As a confirmed exponentialist, if I were in NYC, I’d assume the worst. After all, how hard is it to mask up? And shpritz your Betadine or Enovid or whatever? Not hard at all.

I also conclude that the whole “personal risk assessment” schtick is demented. If this is what I have to do, to figure out if Covid is really increasing in NYC or not, nobody normal is doing to do it, and in fact nobody normal should have to (it’s just the sort of homework that PMCers like that sociopath Bob Wachter love. Who needs it?).

I would argue that your personal protocol should already be strong enough to deal with an uptick, or even a wave. The time to change your protocol is not when data changes, because the data is partial, certainly gamed (again, CDC’s infamous “green map”), might be lagging, might not be granular enough for your location, and might even be bad or non-existent. Change your protocol only when what you see in the material world changes: Where you see ventilation protections installed (it does happen, and I’m sure more often than we think). Or when a venue that was stone 3Cs changes for the better. Or when more people mask. Stay safe out there, and let’s save some lives!


[1] Unless your heuristics are God-level, of course.

[2] Rather, an increase of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, but let’s not be pedantic.

[3] Interestingly, this post was impossible to find on Google, and very easy to find on Bing.

[4] I must update the listing in Water Cooler, which includes only NYWSN, and not the New York State Department of Health.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Michael King

    There is also a Covid wastewater spike in Vancouver. Here too, there was a switch to a more sensitive detection method (beginning of March). Since then and through June 1st, there was a 16% increase in the wastewater virus count at the Iona Island treatment plant. Hospitalizations are at the lowest point in months but they are sure to rise. Anecdotally, there are a lot of people with nasty coughs lately.
    Thank you Lambert for this post and your continuing coverage of the pandemic: invaluable and kind.

  2. Tom B.

    More sensitive, to me, implies more accurate – would need to see the confidence limits. Therefore the old results are likely suspect, not the new ones.

    1. LAS

      In science, sensitivity does not necessarily mean being more accurate. It means more likely to detect/affirm a signal (including whether or not a true signal is present). The scientist has to consider whether – given the circumstances – he/she is picking up an appropriate incremental verity or perhaps generating new statistical error, seeing positivity where none actually exists (as in proliferation of indicators “proving” a conspiracy theory).

  3. KLG

    Exponential. This word was misused throughout What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View. My, how the Philosopher™ at Oxford has fallen…Apologies for the self-citation. Misuse of “genetic code” used to get on my last nerve, but that is a simple matter of terminology instead of meaning and I have forced myself to ignore it (unless I hear it from a biologist). The misunderstanding of “exponential” has consequences, as they say. An exponential increase of anything in the natural world leads to a bad outcome. Invariably and inevitably. One of these days, soon, I fear that Malthus will be proven correct.

  4. JBird4049

    So, we are not quite reduced to reading tea leaves and entrails for our information about Covid? Someone in the comments recently mentioned the possibility of something like airborne AIDS, I assume from the ability of Covid to muck-up the immune system and be transmitted by aerosols. This might explain my increasing anxiety, beyond the normal BS, arising somewhere from my subconscious. That part of me tends to know things long, long before the conscious part of me does. It has taken awhile for me to notice and listen, but I have learned, very slowly, but eventually.

    If all the infections are being hidden, perhaps even from the CDC itself, just how would we know if such a lovely disease arose? Even with HIV/AIDS, the process can take months to years to kill someone, with the symptoms being caused by other diseases. The deaths as well. Only by testing for the HIV virus and perhaps a T-cell count, can one know for certain the correct cause. This is with people looking for the disease.

    If our beloved leaders are deliberately hiding or just not testing for the SARS-CoV-2 particularly of variants that might be particularly destructive of the immune system, what happens when a nasty strain of the flu, or any of the other umpteen diseases that are around, shows up and starts killing people in large numbers?

    Even if you are in good health, having living incubators of death walking around means you are still more likely to get sick from the greater number of virus or bacteria floating about. Also, there are more chances of an even worse version of a disease to be born. Rather than treating for Covid, which would be the major cause of the epidemic, they will treat for the other disease while ignoring the other.

    The annual flu season starts in North America around September/October. I am both curious and really terrified to see what happens then.

  5. Jason Boxman

    Is it minimization, or denial? I’d just consider these people denialists. It’s like Friedman Units; Victory is just over the next hill. Or we need to wait and see and be sure before implementing public health measures, because we really need to be sure. Just another Walensky Unit. How many WUs before population level disability is undeniable?

    Looks like NC has more expansive waster water graphs. At least here, still no uptick:

    Raleigh has 3 sites, still declining or level. Same for the rest of the research triangle. Buncombe county, home of Asheville, shows leveling off, but latest two samples are above trend. It really is reading tea leaves.

    Boston north and south is about the lowest relative to earlier this year, too.

    1. Mary

      I don’t think he’s doing either. I think he’s refuting some alarmist claims by others that there is a spike back to high levels. I also saw a lot of tweets from people kind of freaking out that NY was high again. Also, he recently posted that New York corrected their data to their new methods. He looks right IMO

  6. anon in so cal

    Tiny wastewater Covid spike in Los Angeles County, where, happily, healthcare workers in all healthcare settings (including dental offices) are still required to be masked.

    5/31/2023 5/24/2023 5/17/2023 5/10/2023

    Weekly cases reported1,2

    1,801 2,157 2,323 2,266

    SARS-CoV-2 wastewater concentration as a percentage of the Winter 2022-2023 peak concentration value3

    11% 9% 10% 11%

    1. Roger Blakely

      I was going to post these data too. Thanks to anon in so cal, I don’t have to.

      These days we are bouncing along the bottom. Throughout the pandemic June has been a good month. XBB.1.16 and XBB.1.9 are not different enough from XBB.1.5 to cause too many problems yet. Once we get to the Fourth of July and the summer travel season, we will start to see numbers rise.

  7. tegnost

    I was at a family event in houston this weekend and reading this post on my phone, looked around at very few masks and checked to make sure I had a snug fit on my aura. On the plane I was near a marine who first watched a nazis/stalingrad victory at snow sort of documentary, followed by a long blinken speech, followed by a biden speech on cspan. I convinced myself, without too much trouble, that asking him if he thought the nazis could win this time around would be a bad idea…
    Tues is june 6 so whats that rattling noise I hear?
    Danger will robinson…

  8. Another Anon

    A few months ago a friend of mine told me that she was job interviewing a woman whose previous work was to monitor the Covid levels at one New York state wastewater site. The woman quit that job because the higher ups were putting pressure on her to fudge the data to make the Covid rates lower than what was actually measured. One wonders how wide spread this pressure happens in New York state, or for that matter, in other states.

    1. ChrisRUEcon

      > One wonders how wide spread this pressure happens in New York state, or for that matter, in other states.

      … indeed on does.

  9. eg

    A very thorough explanation of why “do your own risk management” was always going to be a farce among a mostly innumerate population “served” by a regime determined to deny said population any meaningful data.

  10. Raymond Sim

    Thanks for the elbow grease on this Lambert. I’ve been paying attention because Weiland, who has a good track record predicting Covid trends, has said he doesn’t expect the US to see the sort of (worse than) Omicron-like spike India has. I find his reasoning unconvincing (It’s easy to find on his Twitter.). This is partly because I doubt that India has had the sort of lull in transmission it’s alleged to have had, and partly because I don’t think it’s at all clear that “Omicron-like” changes in the immunological playing field are anything special for SARS coronaviruses. I’ve been thinking that if Weiland is wrong, then the reason he was wrong will be worth knowing.

    His attempt to explain away the New York data is actually distressing.

  11. Beth

    NYC wastewater, on the state map, went off-line from April 11 to June 1- completely dark. A few of us made noise about it on Twitter, then Andrew Wang who is in public health and connected with the People’s CDC got intel that results would return end of May When it came back it was at the highest level and has remained there.

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