The Belfast Water District office in Belfast near the Little River. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

More than a dozen communities across Maine will begin testing their wastewater for the coronavirus amid a surge of the highly contagious omicron variant, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday.

The announcement comes as Maine sees record or near-record numbers of coronavirus hospitalizations and cases driven by omicron.

Many scientists and health experts argue that wastewater testing paints a far clearer picture of COVID’s spread in a community than data from conventional testing, as it surveys a general population rather than only those getting tested and having their results reported to the state.

Asymptomatic carriers are less likely to take a test at all, and the availability of at-home tests also ensures that many cases go undetected by health officials.

The wastewater testing will uncover trends and allow Maine to target its response to the pandemic as daily case counts become less relevant amid the omicron surge, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew

Maine communities are entering into two separate wastewater monitoring programs, one run by the Maine CDC and the other by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Communities in both programs will publicly report their data as it is collected, allowing the public to monitor coronavirus rates in those locations.

Sampling for the federal program has already begun in Rockland and Boothbay, with sampling beginning soon at five other sites: Bath, Bethel, Guilford/Sangerville and Wilton.

That federal program, which tests wastewater samples twice a week at around 500 sites across the country, will first track trends in the presence of the coronavirus for three months before using genomic sequencing to track new variants for nine months in the second phase.

The Maine CDC’s program will screen wastewater from up to 16 municipal plants until at least June 2022. Eight sites have begun receiving supplies and training: the Greater Augusta Utility District, Belfast, Blue Hill, the Brunswick Sewer District, Calais, the Portland Water District (at the East End and Westbrook sites) and the Presque Isle Water District.

The state agency will partner with Massachusetts-based Biobot Analytics to collect and test samples twice a week.