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Coronavirus fears renew calls for Gov. Whitmer to end Detroit water shutoffs

water department

Frequent hand-washing is Rule No. 1 in containing the coronavirus. That’s hard to do, of course, for thousands of residents without running water in Detroit.

That’s prompting renewed calls for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to halt the shutoffs that last year disconnected 23,500 residential customers for nonpayment. As of Jan. 15, 9,500 of those were still without water, according to records obtained by Bridge Magazine.

On Friday, groups including the Sierra Club of Michigan, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and We the People of Detroit petitioned Whitmer to declare a public health crisis and impose a moratorium on the shutoffs.

The request came one day after Whitmer denied a similar request — which didn’t mention coronavirus — from the ACLU and as the Detroit City Council studies whether to seek a similar request.

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Governor Whitmer must act in the best interests of every person in the state of Michigan. Basic health and safety must be the top priority,” Kim Hunter, a spokesman for the group Engage Michigan, said in prepared remarks.

“The threat of widespread disease makes it imperative that every household has access to clean, safe water for drinking and sanitation. That means the governor must use her authority to declare a moratorium on water shutoffs across the state.”

No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Michigan. 

Whitmer’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, said the governor is reviewing the request.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department typically does not shut off residents in the winter. It issued a statement to Bridge saying it is monitoring the virus “for the protection of our employees and customers.”

“We are reviewing our existing programs to see if they need to be enhanced in the event of a health crisis,” said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a department spokesman. 

“We will continue to rely on the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Wayne County Health, Human and Veterans Services and the Detroit Health Department for advisement on health-related matters.”


The governor’s office last week denied the ACLU’s request for a moratorium after checking public records of three waterborne diseases: shigellosis, acute dysentry; giardiasis, a diarrheal disease, as well as Campylobacter infections, which affect the intestines.

The review found that cases of shigellosis and Campylobacter rose in multiple locations from 2014 to 2017, while giardiasis increased in Detroit in 2017 but dropped again in 2018.

Bridge has reported that Michigan’s chief deputy director of health, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, is one of two former City of Detroit health directors, with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who privately urged the city to stop the shutoffs over health concerns.

Dr. Khaldun

State health spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin last week cofirmed to Bridge that Khaldun sought to end the shutoffs while she was at the city but “at the time had not seen sufficient scientific data that showed water shutoffs were causing specific disease, and she stated that at that time. 

“Dr. Khaldun still believes access to water is critical to public health and all policy options should be considered to assure everyone has access to water,” Sutfin said.

A 2017 study into the shutoffs by Henry Ford Global Health Initiative found an association between shutoffs and water-borne illnesses like gastrointestinal and soft tissue infections. 

Working with anti-shutoff activists We the People of Detroit, researchers compared block-level disconnection data with admissions at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. They found that patients who lived in a block with shutoffs were 1.55 times more likely to have a water-associated illness, even when other socioeconomic situations were taken into consideration.

The study is no longer available online, and one of the authors, Dr. Marcus Zervos at the time accused water activists of politicizing “preliminary findings” for “political purposes." 

On Monday, Zervos and Henry Ford spokesman David Olejarz reached out to Bridge to clarify that more research is needed.

“Although the study was preliminary it did provide important information,” Olejarz wrote in an email.

“People who cannot wash their hands, bathe or use the toilet are at risk of contracting an infection and becoming sick. This is of particular concern now during the coronavirus outbreak with public health officials advising frequent hand-washing to control the spread of infection. We remain committed to the health and safety of city residents and are open to collaborating with our community partners on future research in this area.”

The Detroit City Council had planned to ask Whitmer for a declaration of emergency to stop the shutoffs as early as Tuesday, but her denial of the ACLU request is prompting more study, said Mary Sheffield, the council’s president pro-tempore who is leading the resolution.

“We must end the inhumane and counterproductive practice of shutting off water until we have a income-based water affordability plan in place that ensures everyone has access to safe clean drinking water,” Sheffield texted to Bridge.

“Whether that means instituting a moratorium, declaring a state of emergency to access additional funding and/or commissioning a study to confirm a public health crisis exists with respect to the correlation between communicable diseases and the lack of access to running water, I will continue to search for solutions to address this very serious issue.”

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