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COVID-19 resources for waste and water professionals

coronavirus illustration
Illustration credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Various industry water organizations across North America are creating online resources to keep water and sanitation practitioners and providers armed with relevant knowledge about the COVID-19 virus as it reaches the pandemic threshold in terms of global spread.

A March 2, 2020 World Health Organization (WHO) technical brief written in particular for water professionals arguably provides one of the more comprehensive pictures of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus (named for the crown-like spikes on their surface) that was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus presents with symptoms of fever, coughing and shortness of breath, and can lead to complications such as pneumonia in both lungs, multi-organ failure, and in some cases death.

Much of the new documentation circulating about the virus’s relationship to water, including the technical brief from WHO, similarly focuses on a few key points. Most importantly, experts agree there is no evidence of the survival of COVID-19 virus in drinking water or sewage. The morphology and chemical structure of COVID-19 virus is very similar to other surrogate human coronaviruses for which there is evidence of both survival in the environment and effective inactivation measures.

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“While there is no evidence, to date, on the COVID-19 virus survival in water or sewage, the virus is likely to become inactivated significantly faster than non-enveloped human enteric viruses with known waterborne transmission (e.g., adenovirus, norovirus, rotavirus and Hepatitis A). For example, one study found that human coronavirus survived only two days in dechlorinated tap water and hospital wastewater at 20°C, states WHO’s Communications management.

The 2005 coronavirus study referenced by WHO was by X.W. Wang, et al, in the Journal of Virological Methods (126) 171-177.

Modern drinking water treatment plants are well equipped to remove and disinfect viruses through filtration and disinfection processes. But that said, WHO remains adamant that “provision of safe water, sanitation and hygienic conditions play an essential role in protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including the current COVID-19 outbreak.”

  1. Frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important prevention measures for COVID-19.
  2. Existing WHO guidance on safe management of drinking-water and sanitation apply to COVID-19.
  3. Many co-benefits will be realized by safely managing water and sanitation services and applying good hygiene practices.

WHO notes in its technical brief that it is not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems likely to behave like other coronaviruses. A recent review of the survival of human coronaviruses on surfaces found large variability, ranging from two hours to nine days.

Additionally, the risk of catching COVID-19 from the faeces of an infected person appears to be low, WHO officials state, although there is some evidence to indicate that COVID-19 may lead to intestinal infection and be present in faeces.

Approximately 2-10% of cases with confirmed COVID-19 presented with diarrhoea, and two studies reported detection of COVID-19 viral RNA fragments in faecal matter of COVID-19 patients. However, to date, only one study has cultured the COVID-19 virus from a single stool specimen. The 2020 study is by Y. Zhong, et al, and is featured in China CDC Weekly.

The American Water Works Association has a different take with its COVID-19 advisory, instead addressing the potential consequences of absenteeism.

“In the event of a severe pandemic, absenteeism would increase from illness, the fear of infection, and the need to care for ill family members. This absenteeism could affect drinking water and wastewater system operators and their capability to operate and maintain their systems adequately, thereby increasing the risks to public health,” the association warns. “Absenteeism would also affect workers from other essential and interdependent sectors such as the transportation, power and chemical sectors. It can have an adverse impact on services such as delivery of chemicals and other essential materials and supplies.”

For updates on the spread of COVID-19 within Canada, please click here.

Further reading on COVID-19 for water and sanitation practitioners and providers from additional organizations:

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