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Around the world, individuals, government entities, and businesses have been working to prevent transmission of COVID-19. But, access to water for hygiene isn’t a given.

Actions are aimed at ensuring access to clean water, as well as safety of treatment plants

As the world deals with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s natural to wonder what can be done to lessen the chance of transmission. Hand-washing is among the top recommendations to avoid it, but that simple activity becomes difficult or impossible without water service.

A wave of COVID-19 countermeasures is rolling through the water utility sector. More than 100 cities have initiated responses such as restoration of water service to customers who have had their service disconnected for nonpayment, suspension of new shut-offs, and installation of public hand-washing stations for the homeless. Some bodies are propagating information to correct mistaken beliefs that can lead to hoarding or that discourage hand-washing. Many in the wastewater treatment sector are questioning whether processes can be improved.

The shut-off moratorium movement intensified recently when Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined Detroit’s mayor and the city’s water department head in announcing a restoration of water service to customers who had been cut off for nonpayment. From April through July last year, 11,801 Detroit households were disconnected, with only half being reconnected, so the new plan will probably help many households. The state will cover bills for the first month, but customers will still have to pay $25 to reconnect and $25 a month for service for the duration.

Michigan members of Congress have challenged other cities to adopt the policy, and the movement seems to be catching on. Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and many other U.S. cities have now committed to a moratorium on water service cut-offs until the pandemic is under control.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson noted, as she instituted a water shut-off moratorium, “It is important that all properties have access to water for hand-washing, personal hygiene, and cleaning.” Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio and Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey upped the ante by declaring that access to clean water is a basic human right.

Cities with large homeless populations, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, now are providing more hand-washing stations, public bathrooms, and hand sanitizer.

Projected Water Sector COVID-19 Resilience

These cutoff moratoria are expected to cause widespread pandemic-related revenue losses for water utilities between 20 and 40%. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) has also made a conservative prediction of revenue losses from coronavirus at $12.5 billion.

But even with these revenue losses, the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748) stimulus largely omitted any relief for the water sector. The sector is now pinning hopes on the “Phase Four” stimulus for relief; however, the EPA is making water utilities aware of several available resources, including:

  • Water and Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARN)
  • Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Circuit-Rider Program
  • State Water Sector Technical Assistance Programs
  • State Water and Wastewater Operator Program Offices
  • Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA)

Even with losses accumulating, the water services sector is expected to be exceptionally resilient to pandemics and ensuing economic crises, especially compared to sectors such as tourism and transportation. The stability of water consumption may even make the sector a haven from turmoil for investors.

Combatting COVID-19 Misconceptions

Part of the fight against COVID-19 is silencing misconceptions. For instance, water quality in some parts of Canada has been so bad for so long that residents often do not trust tap water for hand-washing and bathing. Professor Michelle Driedger of the University of Manitoba said, “What needs to be done is to help them to practice the first line of defense, which is hand-washing.”

The Association of California Water Agencies has been combatting the mistaken belief that there is a danger of contracting the virus through California drinking water, a belief that has led to unnecessary hoarding of bottled water.

COVID-19 at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

There still are gaps in knowledge of COVID-19’s dangers at wastewater treatment plants. But during the 2003 SARS epidemic, transmission via sewage aerosols was documented, and COVID-19 is a similar coronavirus.

One study suggests COVID-19 can be contracted by fecal-oral contact, and studies of wastewater containing coronavirus surrogates and SARS indicate the virus can survive in untreated wastewater for days. SARS research also suggested sewage was the vector of infection in a cluster of cases in Hong Kong, and a 2020 report also indicates unconfirmed but possible COVID-19 transmission from sewage pipes in Hong Kong.

Although OSHA and other agencies recommend that wastewater treatment plant workers handle solid waste that may contain COVID-19 just like any other Category B medical waste, these recommendations may need revision after more is learned about the virus.

One test under development at Cranfield University would use the wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) approach to detect the spread of COVID-19 in sewage even before a population becomes symptomatic.

The paper-based testing devices would quickly find biomarkers of infection in human waste as it moves through sewer systems. Applying the test is done with a simple procedure that isolates pathogenic nucleic acids from wastewater. The test is expected to be an important epidemiological tool that could be used to give public health personnel advance warning of impending outbreaks.

Some wastewater treatment equipment at treatment facilities is also inherently more sanitary than others. For example, Fluence’s TORNADO® aerators use subsurface propellers to provide mixing and aeration without splashing and aerosolizing dangerous pathogens like COVID-19. And Fluence’s MABR-based wastewater treatment solutions, Aspiral™ and SUBRE, use passive aeration, which minimizes aerosolization. Contact Fluence to help take a second look at your facility’s coronavirus preparedness.