Almost 500,000 COVID Infections May Have Been Prevented with a National Water Shutoff Moratorium

New research points to urgent need for national action to prevent water shutoffs

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Clean Water

For Immediate Release

Almost half a million COVID infections could have been prevented last year if there had been a national moratorium on water service shutoffs, according to new research from Cornell University and the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch. 

The findings also show that during the same period, from mid-April through the end of 2020,   9,000 COVID deaths could have been prevented with a robust moratorium on water shutoffs. 

The study found that states that had instituted policies to prevent water shutoffs reduced the growth rates for COVID infections and deaths. If similar policies had been adopted across the country, the study model shows that COVID cases might have been reduced by 4 percent, and deaths by 5.5 percent, in the states without a moratorium.

“This research clearly shows us that the pain and suffering caused by COVID pandemic was exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families,“ said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “These findings should move us to fight even harder for water justice everywhere: A full moratorium on shutoffs and a massive federal investment in our public water infrastructure. Congress must pass the WATER Act to invest in communities, promote climate resilience, and ensure public water for all.”

The patchwork nature of local and statewide moratoria policies — many of which expired over the course of the year —  left millions of people vulnerable to losing service. By June, 34 states had imposed either a full or partial moratorium on water shutoffs, protecting nearly 247 million people. But by the end of the year, just 12 states had a moratorium in place. By December, 65 percent of the country — 211 million people — were not covered. This total included 75 million people of color and 2.6 million households in the lowest income quintile, which are the households most at risk of having their service shut off.

“Our model uses more than 12 thousand data points to capture the relationship between days when a state had a moratorium in place and the level of COVID-19 infection and deaths.,” said Dr. Xue Zhang, Post-Doctoral Associate in the Departments of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell. “Using modeling typical of other public health studies, we find states with moratoria had lower infection and death growth rates. We hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future.”

“Access to water is absolutely critical during the pandemic,” said Dr. Mildred E. Warner, Professor of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell University. “This study shows the importance of a national standard for access to water, especially for low-income households. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed so many structural inequities in our society, and access to drinking water is one that demands our attention.”

While there is no comprehensive water shutoff data source, it is clear that the existing shutoff moratoria protected hundreds of thousands of people from disconnection. In California alone, the state estimated that one in eight households were behind on their water bills, owing a collective $1 billion as of January 2021.