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by Elaine K Howley

March 19, 2020

How this growing pandemic may affect your swimming

Editor's Note: U.S. Masters Swimming has posted an updated version of this article.

Many pools and gyms are closing 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. (Here's some information on when you might be able to swim again and some resources for swimmers who are out of the water.)

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.”

Also, across much of the United States, open water venues are only beginning to thaw or are still very cold, which presents the potential for hypothermia if you’re swimming for too long. Proceed with caution or find alternative means of working out at home.

U.S. Masters Swimming has canceled Spring Nationals and is recommending LMSCs and clubs not to have events until at least May 10. Is that a good idea?

“It’s an excellent idea,” Lavin says. “We should have been [canceling large gatherings] sooner probably.” The reason is because of this particular virus’s highly contagious nature.

“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.

The CDC has also recommended a cancelation or postponement of all events with 50 or more people, and President Donald Trump went a step further and recommended avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people. Many Masters meets and open water swims, as well as workouts, easily surpass those totals.

What does it mean to ‘flatten the curve?’

“You keep hearing people talk about ‘flattening the curve,’” Lavin says, referring to a means of reducing the catastrophic potential of COVID-19. “Part of the purpose of that is to reduce cases a bit, but it’s also to slow the spread so that hospitals will be able to handle patients. If we keep the spread down below the number of hospital beds and ICU beds, we can provide excellent treatment and more people will live. If it gets above the number of available hospital beds and ICU beds and doctors and nurses, then we provide poor treatment.”

In addition, the strain on frontline caregivers is significant and grows with each additional transmission. “Healthcare workers are at greater risk” of infection themselves when they are overwhelmed with patients, Lavin says. “When they’re tired, they can’t keep up” with safety protocols, such as changing masks and gowns as frequently as they should. “When people get tired, they make mistakes.”

And if a whole rush of people become ill all at once, that also leads to some difficult decisions for health care workers about who should receive lifesaving care and who might have to go without in times of limited resources. “Right now, we don’t have enough people or protective gear” to respond adequately to a mass-infection situation, she says.

Therefore, it’s critical that we flatten the curve by following CDC guidelines and reducing person-to-person contact. These guidelines state:

  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly after you’ve been in a public space or after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing. Wash with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds each time. If soap is not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick or who may have been exposed to the virus. Stay at least 6 feet away from others. These recommendations are particularly important for those who are at higher risk of infection, including older adults and those with a chronic medical condition such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. If you develop symptoms or think you may have been exposed to the virus, call your healthcare provider for advice. Do not go directly to the office or the emergency room. Call first and ask for guidance.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue (or cough or sneeze into your elbow or upper arm). Throw used tissues in the trash and immediately wash your hands thoroughly.
  • If you are sick and must go out in public, wear a face mask. If you are not sick, skip the face mask so that more supplies will be available to healthcare workers and others who truly need these devices. (Editor's Note, May 9: This guidance from the CDC has changed since this article was originally published on March 19. The CDC now recommends that everyone wear a cloth face covering when going out in public to reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission of the virus.)

  •  Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes doorknobs, tables, countertops, handles, light switches, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, sinks, and any other high-traffic surfaces. Rubbing alcohol, diluted bleach, and hydrogen peroxide can all disinfect surfaces.

Is there anything else you want Masters swimmers to know to keep themselves safe?

“I would say that to the extent that you’re in an area where you can swim outside, do so in small groups while keeping more than 6 feet between each other,” Lavin says. “I think that is probably at this point a safe thing to do. But swimming in the pool, the problem is you’re going to have to go into the gym and 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 spring. It’s beautiful out. It’s a great time to go for a walk,” Lavin says.

 

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