Source: Rural Community Assistance Partnership

For many of us, the only concern we have about water is whether it flows when we turn on the tap.

But the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has a much larger concern: how to keep rural water-treatment employees healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic so potable water keeps flowing. 

In the early months of the pandemic, RCAP surveyed rural and tribal water and wastewater systems across the country to see what impact Covid-19 was having on the small systems. 

What they found was that nearly half of the systems they surveyed said they relied on one person to operate them. Whether that was one person working full-time, part-time, or under contract and shared with other systems, that one person was responsible for the entire water, wastewater or solid waste treatment system.

“Those systems in particular, they were at very high risk that if that operator or the operator’s family got sick, they would not have anyone in the community that could operate and maintain the system itself,” said Nathan Ohle, RCAP CEO. 

Those employees, he said, do what perhaps several operators do in larger areas. 

“And maybe they’ve got a specific duty, to run the pumps or to check water levels and contamination levels and do the testing,” he said. But in a rural area, especially those areas where you only have one operator, they’re doing all of these things.” 

What the majority of the communities RCAP surveyed were most worried about was providing Personal Protective Equipment for those water, wastewater and solid waste treatment employees. 

“What came out very clearly through the survey was that supply chains for those systems was an issue,” Ohle said. “They were having a very hard time getting access to PPE. They don’t have big supply chain themselves to tie into.” 

To address that, RCAP partnered with global water company Xylem Watermark, and water testing company 120Water to get 105,000 N95 masks to water, wastewater, and solid waste treatment facilities in rural and tribal areas across the country. 

“Through this partnership, we were able to offer direct deliveries of PPE, free of cost, to the communities who need it the most,” Ohle said. “In emergency situations, small communities are often left behind in recovery efforts, and along with Xylem Watermark and 120Water we wanted to ensure that operators stayed safe and healthy so that communities had the access to safe water and sanitation that all Americans deserve.”

Coordinating with 120Water, the groups were able to distribute the masks to 2,650 different facilities in 46 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

“All of them were gone in eight weeks,” Ohle said. “And, you know, in most cases, they went to the smallest and maybe even more importantly, the most remote systems, including places like Alaska and Puerto Rico. That had literally no access to PPE at that point in time.” 

In shipments that ranged from 10 masks up to 100 masks, organizations applied for the masks to protect their employees. 

“As President of our system, I feel more secure that in the least they will always be protected, if even minimally,” Anggie Oliver Gely, board president for the Acueducto Comunitario Quebrada Arriba” in Patillas, Puerto Rico said in an email. “At any point in time, while in the streets of our neighborhood, people (w/out masks) have a tendency to randomly approach them. With the availability of these masks in their possession, I can rest assured.”

Ohle said that nearly 90%of the requests for masks came from communities where the drinking water or wastewater system was serving 3,300 or fewer people. 

“The role of water in community health and resilience has grown during the pandemic,” said Joe Vesey, Xylem’s Chief Marketing Officer, and Chair of Xylem Watermark. “ A safe working environment is fundamental to providing safe water and sanitation to our communities. ”

The masks are designed for single or multiple-use, Ohle said, and were provided to the employees with instructions from the CDC on how to extend the life of a mask. 

Until vaccinations happen throughout the U.S., those employees will still need to mask up. 

While the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has suggested that water, wastewater treatment, and solid waste treatment employees should be considered essential employees in the Phase 1b round of vaccinations, in a meeting on Sunday, Dec. 20, water, wastewater, and solid waste treatment workers were put in the Phase 1c category, meaning they will be in the next round of vaccinations, if the ACIPs recommendations are approved. 

Ohle said he hopes the groups will be able to provide another round of mask donations. 

In the meantime, he said, as is often the case in rural areas, several communities have come together in a more regional approach to ensure their systems still operates if the sole employee at that system gets sick. 

“They’re making sure they’ve got agreements in place so that if there’s an operator down the road who can come help, number one, they understand the system, and can operate it,” he said. “We have several examples of communities that we’re working on those kinds of collaborations to ensure that there is a backstop in case someone gets sick.” .