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Water Utilities May Face Virus-Linked Protective Gear Shortages

April 8, 2020, 5:24 PM

Nearly three in four water and wastewater treatment plants are worried about running out of masks, gowns, and gloves to protect workers from the deadly coronavirus, according to a survey of utilities.

The survey, released late Tuesday, reveals that the same proportion of utilities are also concerned about being able to keep workers 6 feet apart at all times to prevent transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19.

The findings are a snapshot of the concerns a subset of the nation’s water and wastewater utilities shared with the nonprofit American Water Works Association, which conducted the survey March 25-30. Responses came from 532 utilities, and the margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

With the nation grappling to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check, clean and safe running water for washing hands and other cleaning has been deemed an essential service.

Survey Details

About 39% of the survey respondents said they face an immediate challenge with supplying personal protective equipment, or PPEs, and another 34% said they would face these challenges in the next month or more. PPEs for water and wastewater treatment workers include masks, gloves, and gowns.

The equipment is in high demand, and there are limited supplies nationwide, according to Laura Copeland, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia water department. Philadelphia has sufficient gear to protect its workforce, she added.

The survey also showed that 57% of respondents were currently concerned about maintaining social distancing on the job. Another 24% anticipate problems in the next month or more.

Only 2% of the surveyed utilities said they were worried about the immediate supply of chemicals needed to treat wastewater and drinking water—though 28% were worried about chemical supply in the next month, or further out.

Utilities commonly use chemicals like sodium hypochlorite, the key ingredient found in bleach, to disinfect water from bacteria and viruses.

‘Think Outside the Box’

But none of the water utilities who talked to Bloomberg Law reported immediate problems.

“Denver Water has sufficient on-site supplies, as well as secure supply chains, of water treatment chemicals for the foreseeable future,” spokesman Todd Hartman said. “We implemented social distancing and telework practices early in the process and continue to be aggressive on all fronts to ensure our employees are safe.”

Rural and small water and wastewater systems, which typically serve communities with fewer than 10,000 people, have also not reported shortages of chemical supplies or protective gear.

“Communities, especially smaller ones, are communicating with neighboring communities to implement local mutual aid connections to share resources if they become scare,” said Mike Keegan, an analyst with the National Rural Water Association.

For example, Oklahoma’s SoonerWarn website lets water and wastewater utilities post their needs for chemicals, labor, or other shortages.

And in the smallest communities in Missouri, the state Rural Water Association is urging members to purchase disinfectants at retail stores, like Walmart or Home Depot, if their supplies run out.

“We believe it is prudent in these trying times for our water and wastewater utilities to be prepared for all eventualities and if need be, ‘think outside the box,’” said John Hoagland, interim executive director of the Missouri Rural Water Association.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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