Several academic partners helped the agency develop the lab methodology. Department officials said they have spent $250,000 on new equipment, acquired $300,000 from grants and academic partnerships and hired a handful of new staff members.
The recent spikes in cases that they detected provided a proving ground for the system, city officials said. The outbreaks in Brooklyn and Queens, identified through lab and rapid coronavirus tests of individual people, were also being borne out by heightened sewer readings at nearby plants, said Pam Elardo, a deputy commissioner who oversees the 14 plants.
This was the case, for example, at the Owls Head plant in Brooklyn, which treats wastewater from Borough Park, Gravesend and Bensonhurst — all of which had outbreaks. The Bowery Bay plant in Astoria, Queens, showed increases linked to outbreaks in Kew Gardens and other areas, agency officials said.
“We were definitely seeing a parallel,” Ms. Elardo said as she entered an intake location at the Newtown Creek plant where wastewater is strained for stray objects — which included on this day a dead pigeon, a $20 bill and clumps of sanitary wipes.
A deputy chief at the plant, Michael Radano, lowered a sampling container down with a rope into an open pipe bearing a river of pungent wastewater from Brooklyn and Queens sewers.
Vincent Sapienza, commissioner of the Environmental Protection Department, watched Mr. Radano and said his agency was eager to be on the front lines of fighting the virus.
Sewer work is not glamorous, but the department’s employees take pride in maintaining a system that most New Yorkers know little about yet rely heavily upon. After pulling up the sample, Mr. Radano said he was a third-generation worker for the department.