How this growing pandemic may affect your swimming
Many pools and gyms are closed in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has upended daily life for millions of people around the globe.
With lots of conflicting advice and misinformation floating around in cyberspace, we reached out to an expert, Roberta Lavin, a professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee’s College of Nursing, for guidance on how you can safely navigate these uncharted waters.
Can COVID-19 be transmitted via water?
“It’s actually a respiratory virus,” Lavin says, meaning that the virus is transmitted via tiny droplets of spit and mucus that may be expelled when coughing and sneezing. These droplets can speed undetected from person to person, causing an infection after the virus enters a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth.
Though this is the typical means of transmission, science is still sorting out the particulars of this new, or novel, coronavirus. “The question remains about all the modes of transmission, which we don’t know at this point. However, it’s not believed that it’s transmitted by water,” Lavin says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on March 10 that “the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Does chlorine in pool water inactivate the virus?
“The good news is that the average amount of chlorine that’s in a pool is going to kill the virus,” Lavin says. Assuming that your pool is properly maintained, the disinfecting chemicals in the water should be enough to render the virus inactive.
The CDC reported on March 10 that “there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs. Proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection (e.g., with chlorine and bromine) of pools and hot tubs should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
If chlorine inactivates the virus, can I go swim?
“I think of all the things you could do, swimming is probably safer than most activities,” Lavin says. But because most pools are housed inside a gym facility or other public space, that presents possibilities for infection before you ever reach the chlorinated water.
“You have to assume that people are infected,” Lavin says. “Anything they touch would be contaminated. It would be hard to get in and out of the pool without touching anything or interacting with another person.”
Think about it: How many surfaces do you touch on a normal visit to and from the pool? You’re reaching for a door handle and using the card scanner or otherwise signing in. You’re getting changed and putting your clothes in a locker or on a bench. You’re touching a communal shower tap. If you use the restroom, that’s a whole other series of doors and surfaces to navigate. There’s plenty of places for a tiny, invisible virus to cling to and follow you home where it might infect you or a loved one.
Emerging research suggests that the coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces like plastic and steel for up to three days. It may also hang in the air in tiny droplets called aerosols for up to a half an hour, at which time it can settle on surfaces.
Though the risk of transmission from surfaces is relatively low, especially if you’re practicing good hand-washing hygiene, the bigger concern is the people you’ll meet at the pool. If you’re planning to take part in an organized Masters workout, it's probably best that you don't. When several swimmers get into a lane together to complete an interval workout, there’s the inevitable few moments at the wall (often while breathing heavily) in proximity to one another that can be a prime opportunity for viral transmission if one of you is carrying the virus. And not everyone who has the virus shows signs of infection.
Theoretically, if you could go swim laps alone without touching any surfaces or coming into contact with another person, it might be safe to do so. “If swimmers were in a large Olympic-style pool swimming laps and there was one swimmer in every other lane, then they are probably 6 feet apart,” Lavin says. But when was the last time you had that sort of arrangement at your local Masters practice?
“And there’s another problem. Part of our nature is to say, ‘Oh, no. I’m not getting sick,’ and you deny that it could be a possibility. And you go out and push through,” Lavin says. “I think that’s one of the big problems for a lot of people, especially athletes. You deny that it could possibly be an injury or that you could possibly be sick and you’re going to soldier on through it. This is not the time to do that.”
Is swimming in open water a better option?
It’s often been said that the solution to pollution is dilution, and that may be true here, too, Lavin says. “Because of the flow of the water and the amount of dilution in a larger body of water such as a lake or river, the virus would not be a concern. The bigger concern there is that you shouldn’t be swimming in a lake or river by yourself. And, of course, with social distancing, the goal is to keep people 6 or more feet away from each other.”
Proceed with caution or find alternative means of working out at home.
“We are now fairly certain people are contagious before they ever have symptoms, so they are spreading that virus all over the place before they have any symptoms. All it takes is a couple of people in an environment in close contact like that” to widen the pandemic, Lavin says. “The average person is spreading the virus to 2.5 more people. If you put people in an environment like a large gathering and then everyone goes home, they take the virus back home with them and infect others in their community.”
This creates an ongoing cycle of transmission and infection that becomes very difficult to manage.
Is there anything else you want swimmers to know to keep themselves safe?
Swimming in the pool, the problem is you’re going to have to go into the locker room/ shower area & touch doors and benches and change clothes. It’s probably just better not to.”
But you don’t have to become a couch potato either. In fact, in these stressful and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to get regular physical exercise. Recommit to your at-home dryland training routine using free weights, resistance bands, or whatever materials you have at home. And if you’re permitted to, take advantage of getting out into fresh air.
“It’s summer. It’s beautiful out. It’s a great time to go for a walk,” says Harshad Daswani, Founder, The Beach Company