Portland Water District Maintenance Operator Jeremiah Steward (left) and Director of Wastewater Services Scott Firmin take scientific readings at the treatment plant on the East End on Friday, June 10, 2022. Before the plant was built in the 1970s, millions of gallons of raw sewage spewed into ; Bay every day. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s largest city will be the first in the state to start testing its wastewater for monkeypox in a sign that the state is preparing to increase its monitoring of the disease.

The Portland Water District, a quasi-municipal entity that provides wastewater service to Portland-area communities, will partner with Stanford University and Emory University’s WastewaterSCAN program to test the wastewater at its East End facility, district spokesperson Michelle Clements said Wednesday.

The treatment plant serves 60,000 people, according to the district.

Testing will take place three times a week starting next week, Clements said. amples will be sent to Verily Life Sciences’ lab for testing. In addition to continuing to test for COVID-19 through a state program, the district will also screen for influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, a common virus that causes cold-like symptoms.

The initiative builds on wastewater testing that was rolled out at the beginning of this year to monitor for COVID-19 in communities because the virus is detectable in the wastewater. It has become a critical tool for understanding where the virus is circulating in the era of at-home tests and relaxed pandemic attitudes. Some universities have already begun testing wastewater to look for monkeypox.

“We’re just supporting our community,” Clements said. “Our mission is to help protect public health and public safety.”

It is likely the start of a trend as monkeypox spreads in the country. While only three confirmed cases of the disease have been reported in Maine — including its first case in a child last week — 12,689 cases have been found in the U.S. since the first was detected in mid-May, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

President Joe Biden declared a public health emergency related to the monkeypox outbreak at the beginning of August. The number of reported cases has been steadily increasing nationally, with the biggest jump occurring last week.

Monkeypox is a rare disease that is transmitted by close, physical contact, including through sex. Symptoms can include rashes, sores and a flu, but it is rarely fatal, according to the Maine CDC. It is a disease that has disproportionately affected gay men, and vaccination efforts have been targeted at that demographic.

Vaccination efforts have been relatively low-key in Maine. The state has ordered at least 750 doses of the Jynneos vaccine since it began immunizations against the disease. There are currently five established vaccine clinics in Maine, three of which are in Cumberland County.

Whether other cities will also start testing their wastewater for monkeypox is unclear.

The Maine CDC oversees 16 wastewater testing sites in the state. Bangor and Augusta officials said they had not been approached about expanding testing to include monkeypox. A spokesperson for Biobot, a firm that tracks wastewater data in Maine and other states, said it plans to roll out monkeypox analysis in the fall.