Public Water Systems and COVID-19: Questions and Answers - EH: Minnesota Department of Health

Public Water Systems and COVID-19

This website provides information and resources for public water systems (PWSs) about COVID-19 as it relates to drinking water. This website will be updated as more information becomes available.

Visit Drinking Water and COVID-19 for general information and updates about COVID-19 related to drinking water.

Visit COVID-19 Webinars to view webinars from partner organizations in drinking water.

Attention

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Drinking Water Protection Section understands that water supply system operators have no access to in-person training to obtain training hours to renew their certificate because of COVID-19.
Emergency Executive Order 20-32 issued on April 8, 2020, allows the Commissioner of Health to temporarily delay, waive, or modify Minnesota Rules, Chapter 9400, which governs water operator certification renewal.
MDH supports efforts of water supply operators to protect public health and offers the following guidance to assure the continuity of drinking water safety during COVID-19-related restrictions. This is a fluid situation and this notice is subject to change.
See below for more information.

Questions and Answers

  • Questions about sampling
  • Questions about treatment
  • Questions about assistance from Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA) and MnWARN
  • Questions about staffing and operations
  • Questions about noncommunity public water systems
  • Questions about communicating with customers
  • Sampling

    Do I still need to collect samples for Water Quality Parameter (WQP) compliance?
    MDH is allowing flexibility on WQP compliance if sampling is difficult. Alternate sample locations may be used with approval by MDH. We typically recommend that systems use the same sites that they use for bacteria or disinfection by-products sampling. WQP samples do not need to be collected from homes.

    If the MDH chain-of-custody form and bottle labels have specific sample sites, and you are not able to sample at those sites, please write the new sample site on your MDH chain-of-custody form. You must also write the sample location on the sample bottle using permanent marker. The system should track the locations it uses in case there are follow-up questions. Please contact your MDH District Engineer with questions about WQP sampling changes related to COVID-19.

    Do Lead and Copper samples still need to be collected?
    MDH is allowing some flexibility when Lead and Copper samples need to be collected. District Engineers will be contacting systems before their regularly scheduled monitoring. If you have questions before then, please contact your District Engineer or call MDH at 651-201-4700.

    Do we (PWSs) still need to collect bacteriological samples?
    Yes. Bacteriological sampling for total coliform and E. coli must continue throughout the statewide response to COVID-19. PWSs must submit the same number of routine samples required under the Safe Drinking Water Act in your monitoring period.

    Can we change bacteriological sample site locations?
    Yes. During the COVID-19 response, alternate sample sites for total coliform may be used if access to normal sites is restricted. Samples should be taken at representative sites on the distribution system. Samples should not be taken at any health care facilities. Contact your District Engineer if you need assistance in determining new sites.

    What if the operator is sick and cannot collect a sample? 
    Samples are not required to be collected by a certified operator. Systems are only required to have at least one certified operator. A different staff member can collect the sample.

    Would MDH allow flexibility in routine sampling timeframes in the event that we are only able to maintain essential services to keep things running?
    Systems are still required to collect samples during their monitoring periods. MDH is working on this issue and will provide additional information as it becomes available. Contact your District Engineer to discuss specific questions about your system.

    How should we handle fluoride monitoring?
    Fluoride monitoring must be done at locations in the distribution system following the frequency of your current plan. During the COVID-19 response, you can consider a few options:

    • Limit distribution sites to those that limit exposure to operators and the public.
    • Collect samples from hydrants, storage reservoirs, and pump stations.
    • Take samples at or near the entry point, assuming sufficient mixing occurs before the sample tap.
    • If staff and/or supply limitations require, stop fluoridation and notify MDH. Add this information to your monthly report. 

    How should we collect disinfection byproduct (DBP) samples if site access is limited?
    If possible, follow these guidelines:

    • Collect whatever samples are possible from your assigned site(s) on your assigned date.
    • Collect samples from suitable locations (lacking point-of-use or point-of-entry treatment) within five blocks of the original site, and note those changes on the Chain of Custody form.

    Go to top

    Treatment

    Can my water system increase chemical storage in order to prepare for supply line disruption?
    When considering increases in on-site chemical storage, you should consult with your local fire marshal and fire code for storage limits as well as 10 States Standards for recommended limits. In addition, your utility’s emergency response procedures and risk management plans should provide information.

    If we are unable to get chemical delivered, can we simply issue a boil order?
    As always, if you have to change treatment, you must contact MDH. We will help you determine what actions to take.

    Go to top

    Assistance from Minnesota Rural Water Association and MnWARN

    What can Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA) do to assist PWSs?
    MRWA circuit riders are not allowed to run a system long-term but can provide field assistance and training to any operator during an interim period or until operations are satisfactory.  Circuit riders are currently providing technical assistance by phone to systems. This allows them to cover more ground than making individual field responses.  But if there is an emergency, circuit riders will respond and provide field assistance.  

    Find more information at the MRWA website.

    What can MnWARN do to assist PWSs?
    If an operator is temporarily absent due to COVID-19 because the individual or a family member has to self-quarantine, MnWARN cannot operate the system. Unfamiliar operations and liability issues prevent MnWARN from operating systems under these conditions. MnWARN can provide short-term operations support to relieve an operator and is able to train the MnWARN on short-term system essentials. MnWARN is not able to fill in during long-term absenteeism.  MnWARN can be listed as a resource for short-term water system support and typical forms of assistance.

    Availability of MnWARN staff and resources may be impacted by the widespread response to COVID-19.

    Find more information at the MnWARN website.

    Go to top

    Staffing and operations

    Are contract water operators available?
    All water systems should have a plan in place to address potential staff shortages. Plans may include items like cross-training staff on critical work functions and developing a staffing plan with a neighboring system.

    If a situation arises and a system’s plan does not provide for adequate staffing, the system must contact their MDH district engineer or, if outside of normal business hours, the State Duty Officer. MDH can assist in connecting you to MnWARN and MRWA, who may be able to assist.

    For emergency situations when no other options are available, MDH now has a contract with an emergency staffing contractor. The contractor may be able to provide operator services for a limited duration, until the system has secured other services. This contract will help ensure staffing capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as into the future.

    How is MDH modifying water operator certificate renewal?

    This modification is effective, April 8, 2020. 

    Operators who are renewing their licenses and do not have enough training hours to meet the renewal requirement can participate in trainings available online. Many online training options are free and available from organizations such as the American Waterworks Association (AWWA), MRWA, WaterOperator.org, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If operators are not able to complete these requirements by their renewal deadline, MDH will work with them on a case-by-case basis and allow them to complete their training after the COVID-19 response period.

    Once in-person training sessions and operator schools have resumed, MDH expects that any operator who did not have the required renewal hours will complete those hours within 12 months.

    MDH typically reviews and initiates enforcement in August and February. MDH will review the list in August. However, MDH will not take enforcement against any system because any operator of theirs was not able to obtain their training hours as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    What actions should PWSs take to prevent issues from reduced water usage?
    Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many buildings are experiencing periods of little to no water usage due to shutdowns or a reduction in business activities. Water quality problems can arise as water sits in building plumbing systems.

    The University of Minnesota is starting a study that will help MDH verify the information in the guidance and update it, if necessary, based on new information. Researchers will sample water in buildings that have been shut down and determine how effective flushing is in improving water quality and safety. This unique research opportunity will help protect Minnesotans from pathogens like Legionella now and into the future.

    Should I still conduct my flushing program?
    To maintain water quality, many community public water systems are continuing normal flushing programs. However, some communities are suspending or altering their flushing program to reduce chemical use, reduce maintenance created by flushing activities (main breaks, hydrant repairs), or deal with staffing issues.

    As always, it’s important to notify building owners and customers prior to distribution flushing so they are aware of potential water quality changes and know to flush their own building plumbing after distribution flushing.

    If you are questioning whether or not you should conduct your normal flushing program, please contact your District Engineer to discuss the pros and cons.

    Is there any guidance on water shut-offs for non-payment during COVID-19?
    At this time, local governments have authority over water shut-offs during COVID-19. The State Legislature is looking into extending no-shut-off protection to water and wastewater utilities during this period.

    What drinking water and wastewater staff are considered essential employees under the Executive Order to stay at home?
    According to federal guidance from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), employees needed to operate and maintain drinking water and wastewater/drainage infrastructure are essential workers.  This includes:

    • Operational staff at water authorities
    • Operational staff at community water systems
    • Operational staff at wastewater treatment facilities
    • Workers repairing water and wastewater conveyances and performing required sampling or monitoring, including field staff
    • Operational staff for water distribution and testing
    • Operational staff at wastewater collection facilities
    • Operational staff and technical support for SCADA Control systems
    • Chemical and equipment suppliers to water and wastewater systems, including for personnel protection
    • Workers that maintain digital systems infrastructure supporting water and wastewater operations

    If you have questions, refer to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development website.

    Do I need to carry documentation that shows I am an essential worker?
    You are not required to carry any paperwork when you are traveling to and from your place of employment, or anywhere else. All Minnesotans are urged to voluntarily comply with this Executive Order.

    Will MDH give guidance to cities on who should come to work?
    Refer to the LMC website for information and updates on this issue.

    How long should people stay away from work if they have symptoms? When should people come back to work if they have COVID-19?
    Refer to the CDC website for guidance.

    Have there been any discussions with medical facilities about offering priority COVID-19 testing for water and wastewater employees?
    Refer to the LMC website for information and updates on this issue.

    Will water and wastewater operators be considered essential employees if a statewide quarantine goes into effect?
    Refer to the CISA website for more information.

    These are recommended best practices and strategies for PWSs during the COVID-19 outbreak. These strategies may not be applicable to all systems. Refer to Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) for more information about COVID-19.

  • Provide and wear extra personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Follow social distancing guidelines.
  • Know the symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Conduct cross-training.
  • Split shifts.
  • Only allow public staff in public buildings.
  • Limit work to essential duties.
  • Staff members that are feeling ill should stay at home until it is confirmed that they do not have COVID-19.
  • Operators should refrain from contact with family members who are ill.
  • Stay calm, make a plan, and follow the plan. Evaluate the plan and adjust it if needed.
  • Thank each other for the extra work that is being done.
  • Make sure Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for critical activities are written down, current, and readily available.
  • Clean and sanitize all equipment, PPE, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, and surfaces used by staff.
  • Request electronic receipts for all deliveries to your plant.
  • Provide breaks between operator shifts to ensure that they are receiving adequate rest.
  • Continue to pay staff if they are ill and unable to work.
  • Provide campers for staff to remain on-site.
  • Conduct active screenings when personnel arrive on site.
  • Update emergency contact lists.
  • Provide thermometers for staff self-checks.
  • If you are using hydrants for sampling, disinfect and consider using a sampling port/adaptor.
  • Go to top

    Noncommunity public water systems

    How is MDH helping noncommunity public water systems?
    While MDH has taken steps to reduce exposure for staff and public water systems by curtailing field activity, MDH remains dedicated to working with the owners and operators of noncommunity public water systems in providing safe drinking water. MDH staff are available via phone and email, and will still be in field to address contamination situations or other emergencies. Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns. See the Noncommunity Public Water Supply Unit Contact List to find the MDH sanitarian and compliance officer for your part of the state. MDH will also send out periodic updates to noncommunity public water systems via email as new information becomes available.

    What should I do if my business or facility closed unexpectedly due to COVID-19? Or if it’s a seasonal operation and its opening is delayed by COVID-19?
    Please contact your compliance officer as soon as possible or send an email to health.noncommunitycompliance@state.mn.us if:

  • your business or facility has closed unexpectedly due to COVID-19,
  • you anticipate a closure soon,
  • or yours is a seasonal operation that cannot open as planned.
  • This is especially important if you are required to collect water samples on a monthly or quarterly basis.

    If you are restarting your system following a period of non-use or low use:

  • see the COVID-19 Reopening Guidance for Noncommunity Public Water Systems (PDF) if you did not depressurize your system; or
  • see the Start Up Procedure for Seasonal Public Water Systems (PDF) if you depressurized your system over the winter.
  • If MDH requires me to collect my own water samples, do I still need to collect them?
    It is important for noncommunity public water systems to maintain a safe supply of water even during these challenging times. If MDH requires you to collect your own water samples, please continue to do so. Note that the laboratories which analyze water samples are doing their part to maintain operations while protecting their employees. If you hand deliver samples to a laboratory, we recommend you confirm they are open and receive direction on specific drop off procedures to maintain social distancing. If you have any questions about sampling requirements or sample delivery, please contact your compliance officer.

    Communicating with customers

    Do Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR) still need to be completed?
    MDH will provide you with your CCR templates on April 1, as regularly scheduled. Your system will receive an email message on April 1 that provides access to your template. Your CCR is an opportunity to remind your consumers of what you are doing to protect their drinking water.

    If you anticipate having difficulty meeting the SDWA-required July 1 publication date, please call MDH at 651-201-4700.

    If we receive calls from customers about COVID-19, where should we direct them for more information?
    Please refer your customers to the websites of MDH, CDC, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

  • MDH: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  • CDC: Coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • WHO: Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
  • AWWA has provided messaging for utilities to consider using with customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consult the MDH Risk Communication Toolkit for more resources.

  • We understand this is a stressful time for our community and for the households we serve. Please know that we are here for you and are committed to taking all steps necessary to maintain safe, reliable water service.
  • You can continue normal use of tap water.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that Americans continue to use and drink tap water as usual.
  • COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water supplies.
  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.” The World Health Organization adds that the “presence of the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking-water supplies and based on current evidence the risk to water supplies is low.”
  • Handwashing using tap water is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19. CDC and other health organizations recommend frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds each time. Up-to-date information from EPA on COVID-19 and water can be found at the EPA's Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) site.
  • Remember that your toilet should not be used as a trash can. Do not treat other items like toilet paper. Please do not flush paper towels, “flushable” wipes, napkins, tampons, cotton balls, dental floss or other substances. Flushing nonbiodegradable items can result in backups and overflows.
  • We are prepared to keep safe water flowing.
  • We are well-prepared to continue providing water service throughout this pandemic. We have staff and infrastructure in place to maintain water service around the clock to help keep families healthy, clean and hydrated.
  • Go to top

    Updated Wednesday, 29-Jul-2020 15:34:11 CDT