When temperatures soar, many of us run for the pools, lakes, and rivers, or a dive for a dip in the ocean to cool off. However, we use our beaches, waterways, and aquatic facilities for much more than escaping the heat. For fishermen, boaters, rowers, divers, water polo players, and swimmers, the water is an arena for competitive sport and exercise. Children flock to summer camp aquatics facilities and water parks to learn and play, while therapy centers use pools to rehabilitate the injured.
Unfortunately, for some, the current COVID-19 pandemic may dictate a change in summer plans and curtail the use of some aquatic facilities. Fortunately, for many others, some additional safety precautions may be all that is needed to allow the summer fun to continue.
COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, and as such, we are still learning much about how the disease works, its transmission, and best practices to contain it. What we know so far is that COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person via respiratory droplets from coughing/sneezing. The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) also believes it may be possible for the virus to spread on outside surfaces if a person touches a surface and then touches their nose, eyes, or mouth. For contact transmission the virus appears to have limited survival time outside the body — studies show the virus can survive on surfaces for up to several days.
What about water?
Treated water: pools, hot tubs, spas, and water play areas
First, let’s start with the good news. According to the CDC, standard water filtration and treatment methods used in pools, hot tubs, spas, and water play areas should inactivate the virus:
There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas. Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.
Although filtered/treated water is safe, pool facilities can still be a source for transmission. Mere proximity to the water doesn’t stop the virus from otherwise spreading through coughing or sneezing. The CDC advises operators of aquatics facilities follow state/local guidelines, maintain good hygiene and social distancing within their facilities, and to follow CDC guidelines for cleaning/sanitizing if there is a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.
Operators should consider posting signs and utilizing tools many pools already have, ropes and floats, to enforce distancing for swimmers.
Untreated water: ocean, rivers, lakes
For untreated water, the data is still coming in.
Based upon studies of similar coronaviruses, it appears quite likely that the COVID-19 virus can survive in untreated water for several days to several weeks. However, the jury is still out as to what this means for someone who wants to swim in an ocean or lake.
Some scientists and medical professionals believe that in a large body of water, like the ocean, dilution of the virus may mitigate any risk of transmission from the water itself. Of course, in smaller bodies of untreated water such as a lake or pond, dilution may not provide a meaningful reduction in risk if the virus is being introduced into the water supply.
The safety from dilution in large bodies of untreated water is not a settled issue amongst the scientific community.
In initial comments to the Los Angeles Times, Kim Prather, a leading atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography stated, “I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now,” – she explained ocean water carrying the virus from sewage could be aerosolized by waves and increase the risk for beachgoers simply breathing near the water “I see pictures of the beach shut down, and the signs tell you don’t walk on the beach, don’t swim, don’t surf, but nobody tells you: Don’t breathe.”. Following backlash to the LA Times Article, and a subsequent study showing that the virus does not appear to remain infectious in fecal matter, Dr. Prather reconsidered, “At this point, there is not enough known about this virus to draw any different conclusions from the long-standing recommendation to avoid swimming and surfing in regions where the ocean is polluted and check local beach water quality before heading to the beach,”
What the experts do agree on is that even at the beach, the risk of person-to-person transmission from coughing and sneezing remains. Moreover, on windy days, the six-foot social distancing rule-of-thumb may not be enough. Donald Milton, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park has explained, “If there’s a strong breeze blowing, probably nobody should be downwind from each other.” To appreciate this, Dr. Prather explained that the aerosols in smoke behave in a similar manner to the virus “The best analogy is, how far do you move away from a smoker if you don’t want to smell the smoke?”
The CDC has stated that filtered/treated water at pools, hot tubs, spas, and water play areas should be safe for swimming, therapy, and play. Aquatics facilities seeking to re-open should follow state and local guidelines and use signage and existing tools such as lane ropes and floats to enforce social distancing.
There is no clear consensus regarding the threat of transmission from untreated water. Unfortunately, the absence of evidence does not mean that untreated water is safe, even if the dangers have not yet been quantified. For cautious beachgoers, staying out of the water or seeking a chlorinated alternative is preferable until we learn more.
Created By Barak Kassutto