Important information for swimmers during the coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus appeared in the U.S. nearly two years ago, and the news appears to just keep getting worse. The pandemic has killed more than 850,000 Americans, and nearly 64 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Everyone’s lives have been disrupted to some extent.
Although three vaccines and booster shots are now available in the U.S., the pandemic continues to disrupt life as we once knew it. Since December 2021, case counts and hospitalizations have skyrocketed thanks to a contagious new variant called omicron, which makes a return to normal longer than first hoped when vaccines debuted.
Here’s an updated look at what you need to know about what’s happening and how that might impact your swimming.
What’s the Latest Regarding the Omicron and Delta Variants?
Viruses mutate, and every time a virus replicates, that’s an opportunity for a genetic mutation to occur. Because there’s so much virus circulating in the world right now, there are untold opportunities every day for more transmissible or more virulent versions of the virus to become the predominant form of the virus in circulation.
Since the pandemic began, several concerning strains of the virus have evolved. As of mid-January 2022, two variants of concern are being closely followed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first of these, the Delta variant, rose to prominence in the late summer and fall of 2021. The Delta variant spreads more easily than previous variants and also causes more severe illness. This led to a frightening surge in hospitalizations and deaths.
Although vaccines were found to be effective in preventing severe illness and death among those who acquired the Delta variant, breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals caused much concern as the variant quickly became the dominant strain around the world.
By late 2021, the Omicron variant had supplanted Delta as the most prevalent variant in the U.S. This version of the coronavirus is far more transmissible than previous variants but tends to cause less severe illness. Nevertheless, because so many people have gotten sick, hospitals around the country are overwhelmed. The National Guard has been called upon in several states to assist hospitals with the crush of patients.
What's the Latest About Vaccines and Booster Shots?
Because of the rise of the Delta and Omicron variants, the CDC in December released updated guidance that urges vaccination for everyone aged 5 and older and booster shots for those aged 16 and older. Mask mandates from earlier in the pandemic have returned in many places, but this time public health officials are encouraging the use of tight-fitting, specialized N95 respirators or KN95 or KF94 masks rather than less protective surgical or cloth masks. (The KF94 mask blocks 94% of particulates from passing, and the N95 and KN95 masks block 95% of particulates.) Double masking has also been suggested as a potentially better option than wearing a single cloth mask.
The Omicron surge is placing an enormous strain on health care systems, and vaccination remains a helpful tool in lessening this burden. The best protection against the Omicron, Delta, and other variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that may yet emerge is getting and staying fully vaccinated.
As soon as you’re eligible, it's recommended that you get a booster shot. In mid-January 2022, the CDC announced that some immunocompromised individuals would be offered a fourth shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Many public health officials anticipate that additional booster shots may be recommended in the near future for everyone, and some may be tailored to specific strains of the virus. Pfizer is currently developing an Omicron-specific shot that should be ready to begin testing in March 2022. Moderna is also working on an Omicron shot that is anticipated to be ready in the fall.
Vaccines are expected to be authorized for kids aged 6 months to 4 years in the first half of 2022. Until then, for people who can’t be vaccinated (such as those with certain immune disorders and young children) avoiding infection means using the tools we’ve had all along, including masking, physical distancing, and regular testing. These tips are also helpful for individuals who have been fully vaccinated, as breakthrough infections—infections that occur even when the individual is fully vaccinated and boosted—have occurred.
The keys to remember for protecting yourself while continuing to swim regularly are:
- Maintain at least 6 feet distance from others at all times
- Wear a tightly fitted mask when you’re not in the water
- Limit your time indoors with people from other households
- Keep washing your hands regularly
When Can I Swim After Getting a Vaccine?
The coronavirus vaccines provide increased protection against COVID-19, but you may experience some side effects that could impact when you can next swim.
Common and completely normal responses to the first two shots or a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine include:
- Redness, pain, tenderness, and swelling at the injection site
- Muscle aches and pains
- Fever and chills
- Joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
Side effects tend to be mild to moderate and typically resolve within 24 to 72 hours after the shot. Depending on the range of side effects you’re experiencing, you may want to skip your swim until these effects resolve.
Remember, these side effects are a good thing. They signal that your immune system is responding to the vaccine appropriately and building the antibodies you need to be protected from the virus in the future.
Though there’s little in the way of formal data, anecdotally, many people say the side effects from the second shot tend to be worse than the first, and the booster shot may produce fewer side effects. But each individual is different in how the immune system responds, so it’s best to expect that you might feel like you’ve got the flu in the day or so after the shot and plan your swimming and other responsibilities as best you can accordingly.
Rest and fluids are a good way to help ease any side effects you might experience. You may also want to sit out from workouts for a day or two after getting a jab. If side effects increase in severity or you develop an allergic reaction to the vaccine, contact your doctor for guidance.
Can I Swim With My Local Masters Group During the Pandemic?
Many Masters groups have worked out a safe protocol for swimming, and a lot of programs have returned to the pool in some capacity. Follow all local guidelines and instructions when using the pool or meeting with other swimmers for exercise. Many facilities have instituted reservation requirements, mask mandates, and other protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the virus while patrons use the facilities. Keep following those directives.
In addition, there’s still plenty else you can do to limit the spread and keep yourself and your swim friends safe:
- Break the chain. The coronavirus is an airborne pathogen that’s transmitted through the air in tiny droplets called aerosols expelled from the lungs. Limiting your time in an enclosed space with others can reduce your chances of inhaling droplets from an infected person. Increasing the ventilation in an indoor pool can also limit the accumulation of exhaled viral particles.
- Head outside. Swimming outdoors is an even better option, as flow of air helps move any viral particles along before they can infect you.
- Keep it clean. It’s significantly less likely that you’ll become infected by contact with a contaminated surface, but frequently sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs can help reduce the chances of this form of transmission. The good news is that chlorine is an excellent sanitizing agent that’s been shown to deactivate the virus that causes COVID-19. You can’t contract COVID-19 from the pool water itself.
- Stay distant. Physical distancing—staying at least 6 feet from others—is still an important means of slowing the spread of COVID-19. This goes for while you’re in the pool too. Many pools are limiting the number of people who can be in the pool at the same time, and some aren’t permitting more than one person in a lane at a time. If there are two people in the lane, you can split and send off from opposite ends. If you’re circle swimming or there are more than two, when the first person finishes at the wall, the second person should stop at the backstroke flags. A third person should stop near the middle of the pool to maintain that social distancing. These rules can help break the chain of transmission.
- Wear a mask. Mask wearing is critical for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Wear your mask right up to the water’s edge, and put it back on as soon as you get out of the pool. Bring an extra one in case your first one becomes wet, as a wet mask doesn’t work very well and is very difficult to breathe through.
- Get a better mask. Many public health officials are now recommending that you up your mask game to further limit the chances of the virus spreading. The CDC still recommends that specially labeled “surgical N95 respirators” be reserved for health care providers. But KN95 masks have become widely available and have been found to offer better protection against virus transmission.
- Test regularly. At-home tests—if you can find them—can be a very useful tool in your arsenal to help you understand if that sniffle is a run-of-the-mill winter cold or a case of COVID-19. If you test positive, even if you have minimal symptoms, don’t go swimming.
- Stay home. If you’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, have been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus, or if you have symptoms of the disease (including but not limited to fever, headaches, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, or nausea), contact your doctor and self-isolate. As Omicron cases surged in late December, the CDC changed its quarantine guidance for people who test positive for COVID-19, shortening the recommended isolation period. Now, if you have COVID-19, you should isolate for five days and if you’re asymptomatic or your symptoms are resolving (meaning you haven’t had a fever for 24 hours), follow that by five days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people you encounter. The CDC issued this updated guidance after studies showed that the majority of transmissions occur early in the course of illness, typically in the one to two days prior to onset of symptoms and during the two to three days after. In any event, if you test positive, skip your swim and alert the pool manager if you’ve been to the pool recently so they can notify anyone you may have been in contact with of a potential exposure.
- Get vaccinated and boosted. The best way out of this ongoing crisis is vaccinating as many people around the world as possible. Do your part by getting vaccinated and boosted as recommend by the CDC and your local public health officials.
How Do the Coronavirus Vaccines Work?
There are three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S., one manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, one by Moderna, and one by Johnson & Johnson. The first two require injections administered in two doses a few weeks apart, and the J&J vaccine is a single shot.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines deliver genetic material that mimics the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. Your immune system learns to recognize the material as foreign and that triggers an immune response in your body. This is why some people feel run-down, have a fever, or develop other symptoms in the day or two after receiving the shot. Those symptoms are a good thing. They mean your immune system is learning how to protect you from the virus. Once that immune system memory has been established, your body can successfully fight off the virus if you’re exposed to it later.
The J&J vaccine works a little differently. The J&J shot uses a harmless virus to act like a “Trojan Horse” to sneak into cells and prime the immune system to be ready in case of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
—For a deeper dive into the science behind how coronavirus vaccines work, read “COVID-19 Vaccines and Coronavirus Variants: Background Information for Swimmers”
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