Myth-busting: You won’t get COVID-19 from your tap water

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Customers buy water, toilet paper and other supplies
Customers buy water, toilet paper and other supplies amid fears about the spread of COVID-19 on March 6 at a Costco in Burbank, Calif. As concern grows over the spread of COVID-19, many people have been stocking up on items like food, cleaning supplies and bottled water.
Robyn Beck | AFP via Getty Images file

As concern grows over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, many people across Minnesota and the U.S. have been stocking up on items like food, cleaning supplies and bottled water.

Why water? In the event of an outbreak, is our water supply at risk?

We asked some experts about water and COVID-19, and here’s what we learned.

Is our tap water safe to drink?

Yes.

According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is present in or being transmitted by drinking water supplies.

The virus is mainly being spread from person to person in close contact, through respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. That's why health officials are recommending washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces and staying at least 6 feet away from each other in public.

Water treatment plants use a process to disinfect drinking water that kills pathogens like viruses.

That means tap water is safe for drinking, cooking, hand-washing and cleaning — and it’s not necessary to boil it first.

Private drinking wells also are generally considered safe. If you’re concerned about the presence of contaminants or pathogens such as viruses in your well water, it’s a good idea to get it tested.

Some schools and other public places are asking people not to use public drinking fountains — or are turning them off altogether.

Dr. George Morris, medical incident commander for the COVID-19 response team at the central Minnesota health system CentraCare, said the water flowing from drinking fountains is safe, but it’s the buttons or other surfaces that could pose a transmission risk.

Morris said no-touch water bottle filling stations are safe. But for those that require pushing a button or lever, it might be a good idea to use your elbow, clean the surface first or just avoid those fountains.

Why then are people stocking up on bottled water?

This likely has more to do with the general mood of the country than with a need for water.

When there's a national crisis, people stock up on things they think they might need. Store shelves have been cleared of everything from canned goods to toilet paper.

When preparing for a big event like a blizzard or a tornado, having some bottled water on hand is a good idea, so people are likely doing what we’re used to doing.

In the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, emergency planners advise having enough food, prescription medication and cleaning products to last about two weeks in case of a quarantine.

But buying a bunch of bottled water probably isn't necessary. There should still be plenty of water flowing from your tap.

What happens if there's a widespread outbreak or quarantine? Would we still have enough water?

Yes, that’s very likely.

Cities are required to have plans in place to keep their water treatment plants operating, even in a pandemic. These are called “continuity of operation” plans to make sure they have enough staff on hand to keep critical services functioning.

Cities also are ready to handle an increase in the amount of water needed as people are asked to wash their hands longer and more often. Steve Schneider, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services, said this time of year, water use is pretty low.

"We are only using probably 40 percent of our capacity right now,” Schneider said. “So, we have plenty of capacity if there is a small increase, but I can't believe it would be that much. But we're certainly prepared for it."

What about people who can’t pay their water bill? Could their water be shut off, right when they're supposed to be washing their hands more?

That is a concern. Cleanliness is really important right now. Experts say hand-washing is one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of this disease

So some cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, are taking steps to make sure that people don't lose access to water. Both cities have suspended water shutoffs for 30 days.

Those shutoffs happen when people don't pay their bill, or when they have a plumbing violation. City officials say it's really important right now to make sure no one loses access to water, so they are putting those on hold for now. Other U.S. cities are doing the same.

Can drinking a lot of water keep you from getting COVID-19?

There's a lot of misinformation out there, especially on social media, about home remedies and ways to keep from getting sick.

One viral social media post claimed that if you drink enough water, you can wash the virus down to your stomach, where the acid would kill it. The World Health Organization debunked this theory, saying drinking water doesn't prevent coronavirus infection.

Doctors say staying hydrated and drinking a normal amount of water is always a good idea — especially if you're sick — but you don't need to consume vast amounts.

Using lots of water to wash your hands and to clean is definitely a good idea — along with soap, bleach or a cleaning agent with a high alcohol content.

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