- Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shared that coronavirus isn't likely to spread in water.
- Pools often contain disinfecting chemicals like chlorine or bromine that can "neutralize" SARS-CoV-2 if trace amounts end up in the water.
- But one infectious disease expert says beaches at a lake or on the ocean might lower your risks further because they are free of highly-trafficked surfaces and area around a pool.
As Memorial Day has come and gone, Americans are looking to safely let off some steam by cooling down with a dip in a pool or an afternoon at the beach. But as scientists are learning more about the novel coronavirus each day, some might be worried about swimming during the pandemic — which is why officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shared what they know so far. "There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds," officials shared. But does that mean pools are totally free of transmission risks? And what about open bodies of water like the ocean, or beaches on nearby lakes?
By now, you've probably heard that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis, is a respiratory virus that can spread as infectious droplets are spewed into the air by people who may be unknowingly sick. But those droplets aren't your top concern when it comes to keeping yourself safe while swimming, says Sudeb Dalai, MD, PhD, an infectious disease physician and instructor at Stanford University's School of Medicine and the medical director of Karius Inc., an infectious disease diagnostic firm. "It's theoretically true that the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces and in water for hours or days, it's not felt that water sources, including standing freshwater or pool water, are a significant source of transmission risk for SARS-CoV-2," Dr. Dalai explains.
Rather, the major risk is being around other people who might want to take a swim, too — and using or touching the same facilities that they are. "While active virus is present in respiratory droplets and could potentially be distributed to a water source, it's likely that the virus at that point is neutralized, or diffused to such a degree that transmission is unlikely," says Dalai, who adds that there hasn't been a recorded diagnosis of COVID-19 due to swimming activities yet. The CDC and experts like Dalai maintain that the foremost risk is face-to-face contact for prolonged periods of time, so regardless of whether you head to a friend's pool or a nearby public beach, it's crucial that you continue to practice social distancing efforts while doing so.
Below, Dr. Dalai explains risks associated with both pools and beaches — plus, we're sharing tips to make lazy afternoons by the water are as safe as they can be.
Are pools safe during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Dr. Dalai says you shouldn't worry too much about pool water itself, because SARS-CoV-2 is likely to be dramatically less viable in water. Just because the virus could be detected in water for days doesn't mean it's dangerous throughout that period. "The infectious period is likely substantially less than the time window over which we can detect evidence of virus or viral remnants," he explains. Pools and hot tubs also are often treated with chemicals to keep them clean, especially those that are publicly maintained. "The chlorination and treatment practices for pools and hot tub water — as well as wastewater or municipal drinking water — neutralize respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2," Dr. Dalai says.
The real danger associated with pools is the fact that they're much smaller than lakes or oceanfronts, making it harder to share with others without violating social distancing efforts (recently, an event in Missouri over the holiday weekend illustrated just how crowded pools can get). Moreover, Dr. Dalai points out that pools are often accompanied by public spaces that are shared with pool-goers: "All communal areas, like shopping centers, recreation areas, and hotels, contain surfaces that could be contaminated with respiratory droplets." There's a good chance that public pools in your area may remain closed during the summer, according to an Associated Press report. While essential workers may work to clean these pool areas more frequently, you should know that there's a good chance that this smaller area is being exposed to many different individuals over the summer; any surfaces — chairs, pool decks, tables or cabanas — might increase your risks, especially if the pool is already crowded to begin with.
Can you get COVID-19 in the ocean or lake?
Just because ocean water or a nearby lake isn't treated with chemicals doesn't mean that freshwater poses more of a threat for swimmers. Dr. Dalai admits that researchers at the federal and local levels do not have data regarding COVID-19 transmission in saltwater or lake water, but he stresses that the same principles regarding a pool would also apply here. Oceans in particular are vast and have a way of self-regulating any germs that may appear on coastlines during the summer: "The rapid dispersion of any infectious agents in a turbulent body of water such as an ocean or a lake would likely mitigate the risk of acquiring an infection from contact or submersion in the water," Dr. Dalai clarifies.
Beaches at lakes and oceans may not have as many shared surfaces as pools do. We've seen just how crowded beaches can get in places like California, which may force leaders to consider closing or sequestering beaches in the future. Being in close proximity with others at the beach provides much more risk than swimming in a lake or ocean, and Dr. Dalai says you shouldn't underestimate that risk as the summer drags on. "The crowding of beaches and recreational areas... may lead to spikes in community transmission as a result of the loss of distancing. The magnitude of this resurgence is still yet to be seen."
How to keep yourself safe while swimming:
Just like any other time you've spent outside since the pandemic began, you'll need to practice social distancing while heading to the pool or the beach. That may include wearing a mask — but only while on land, as it's a choking hazard to swim with a mask in water. Your local municipality may have rules for you to observe while at pools or beaches, but also keep these tips in mind to lower COVID-19 risks this summer:
- Keep your hands clean as possible. Especially if you're in a public space, make sure you're sanitizing your hands in order to prevent spreading any germs onto shared surfaces — or tracking germs from these surfaces onto yourself and your belongings. Do everything you can to avoid touching your face, as this is a primary way that highly-trafficked surfaces and areas can end up introducing SARS-CoV-2 into your respiratory system.
- Disinfect or sanitize any chairs or tables. It's better if you can bring your own chairs and towels to sit on, but if you are using a lounge chair, be sure to wipe it down throughout with a disinfectant wipe. Bringing as many supplies that are your own is best, because you know these are clean!
- Practice good swimming hygiene. If you can, don't spit or blow your nose into the water while you are swimming. Doing so in close quarters like a pool can influence overall risk factors, especially if you are swimming with others not in your household. Avoid swallowing any lake water or letting water enter your mouth as well. While the risk for COVID-19 blood-borne transmission is also unknown, you should avoid swimming with any open cuts or sores.
- Keep your crowd small and make your trip as short as possible. While being outside with friends is safer than inviting them into your home, you should observe the CDC's request of keeping groups to 10 or less while outside. This will ensure that beaches and pools don't become dangerously overcrowded, and give more people a chance to enjoy them. You should also keep your visit as brief as possible to give others the opportunity to enjoy the beach at reduced capacity.
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