A federal moratorium on utility shut-offs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic could have reduced infections and deaths from the virus, a new study found.
The virus has impacted more than 25 million Americans — and killed close to 420,000 people — to date, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Those numbers could have been significantly lower had Americans who defaulted on utility service payments been allowed to keep access to their water, gas and electricity, researchers with Duke University and the National Bureau of Economic Research reported.
The study posited that a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs, from the start of the pandemic last March through November 2020, could have reduced U.S. positive case counts by nearly 9% — and reduced deaths by nearly 15%.
“Safe and reliable access to water is vital to human health under any conditions and especially so in the midst of a pandemic,” the researchers wrote.
Lady Freethinker (LFT) joined a coalition of more than 600 other environmental, human rights, labor, and utility-justice organizations earlier this year in calling for a nationwide stop to essential utility service shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
LFT Founder Nina Jackel said joining aligned with the nonprofit’s mission to create a more compassionate world for all species — including humans. Jackel said the new study supports the other established science behind the coalition’s ask.
“This is really interesting and a good case for why granting people basic rights like water is good for all of us,” Jackel said.
The researchers noted that counties with locally-issued bans on utility shut offs also had lower COVID-19 case growth rates.
They also acknowledged that reliable access to water is essential to following CDC guidelines to wash hands frequently, and that energy disconnections could exacerbate chronic health problems of people, who might then need to shell out more money for additional medical care. Penalties and fees associated with late payments or additional medical care then could drive people into evictions, which would make other guidelines — such as social distancing — more difficult, the researchers noted.
Newly-installed U.S. President Joe Biden already has used his authority to extend a nationwide freeze on evictions through March.
The coalition believes the president could use that same authority to issue an executive order directing the CDC to invoke the Public Health Service Act and ensure Americans can keep essential utility services, regardless of their ability to pay, for at least a year after the pandemic’s duration.