Health commissioner orders water service restored in Petersburg

Northam: 'It shouldn't happen...We're in the middle of a pandemic.'
Posted at 4:34 PM, May 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-10 20:11:20-04

PETERSBURG, Va. -- The Virginia State Health Commissioner sent a letter to Petersburg officialsSunday ordering water service restored to all occupied residences currently without it. Additionally, the commissioner said officials may not disconnect any water service until Gov. Ralph Northam’s State of Emergency expires.

"I write to you to provide my certification as a health officer that shutting off water to residents of the City of Petersburg endangers their health and the health of others," Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver wrote. "As you know, we are currently in the midst of the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic."

Oliver urged officials to restore service to 150 homes as the city's population "struggles with obesity and poverty, which can increase risks of severe illness from the pandemic."

Petersburg City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides said she will forward the letter to city attorney.

Ferrell-Benavides said the city attorney will review the letter and then inform the city council of their next steps.

Officials will do "whatever is required by law," Ferrell-Benavides said.

Oliver noted that Petersburg is one of the least healthiest places in Virginia. In fact, the city ranked 132 out of 133 Virginia localities in health, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2020 annual report.

"Access to running water helps improve hygiene," Oliver wrote. "Running water helps ensure persons can easily and routinely wash their hands and clothes. People need water to keep a sanitary residence and protect themselves and others. All data and recommendations point to the need for running water to reduce risks from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Oliver pointed out that Northam declared a state of emergency over the spread of COVID-19 on March 12 and a public health emergency was declared on March 17.

Since that time, Del. Lashrecse Aird asked city officials on April 27 to come up with a plan to reconnect residents.

Officials said 730 connections were shut off because they were at least 90 days delinquent between July 2019 and January 2020. Of those 730 connections, city officials resolved about 500 of them. That leaves 230 of which 150 have not had their service restored, according to Oliver. The variance is because more than 100 connections were restored illegally, according to officials.

Oliver and Northam worked with Del. Lashrecse Aird, Congressman Donald McEachin and Attorney General Mark Herring to make sure none of the city's residents are without water during the COVID-19 crisis.

Northam was asked about Peterbsurg and utility disconnections during Friday's COVID-19 news briefing.

"The question is about utilities being disconnected... from people's homes," Northam said. "And I think all of you, if you haven't, need to see what happened in Petersburg when utilities, in particular water, was cut off from individuals."

Northam called water disconnections "totally unacceptable."

"It shouldn't happen," Northam said. "I mean that that's the bottom line. We're in the middle of a pandemic. We're asking people to use good hygiene, to wash their hands frequently. I mean, how can you do that if you don't have running water in your house? So we as a society, whether it be Congress or the General Assembly, shouldn't allow that."

Northam said the state intervened to get the service restored.

"That should never happen to Virginians. It should never happen to Americans," Northam said. "And so we need to work together to make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Forty-five cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Petersburg, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Four new cases were reported since Saturday's update.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for the most complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Precautions

Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.

Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.