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Safety Tips for Swimming During Coronavirus Outbreak

One expert weighs in on the variables to consider before you add swimming into your routine again.

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Swimming is a staple of summer and an excellent, low-impact form of cross-training. But during the coronavirus outbreak, as pools and public spaces open up, there are some important factors to take into consideration for keeping you safe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through the use of recreational water systems (like public pools, hot tubs, water playgrounds, lakes, rivers, or oceans). “It’s easy to understand why COVID-19 wouldn’t spread in chemical treated poolsboth chlorine or bromine should inactivate the virus if pool staff and lifeguards are keeping up with chemicals and cleaning,” says Christina Proctor, who holds a Ph.D. in health promotion and behavior and is an instructor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. 

As for untreated bodies of water, Proctor explains that the virus becomes significantly diluted. “The chance that you come into contact with a sufficient number of viral particles to get sick would be very low considering the large amount of water in lakes and oceans.”

But there are still some precautions to take before diving in. 

Do your research before you go swimming during coronavirus pandemic.

It’s important to know the outbreak situation where you plan on swimming, especially if you’re traveling to a popular vacation spot. “I think the most important data point you can look at is test positivity,” says Proctor. A high rate will indicate either that the virus is widespread in that area or that not enough tests are being done—either scenario might be an indication to skip the swim. “Most epidemiologists are in agreement that you want to see a test positivity rate below five percent,” she says. 

Personally, Proctor’s home in Georgia is sitting at a 12 percent test positivity rate. “I might consider going back to swim laps in my local indoor pool if we got that positivity rate down below that threshold,” she says. In the meantime, she feels more comfortable running and biking where she doesn’t have to worry about touching shared surfaces, she can more easily maintain distance, and she doesn’t have to go in and out of an enclosed space. 

If choosing an open body of water, it’s also important to know the overall safety of the water. “Make sure you know about the body of water before you swim in it and stick to local guidelines,” says Proctor. While it is dangerous (and gross) to swim in polluted water at any point, there is potentially a greater hazard when it comes to coronavirus. “There’s research showing COVID-19 viral loads in untreated sewage correlate with the population prevalence so there is a possibility that water contaminated with sewage could be a potential threat for transmission,” she says. 

According to Environment Texas Research and Policy Center, which surveyed beaches throughout the U.S., there are approximately 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illnesses nationwide each year. Proctor recommends swimmers take the time to find out how often their chosen location is tested for pollutants like fecal matter.     

Outside is better than inside. 

If you’re looking to give those runner’s legs a break, Proctor recommends choosing an outdoor area over an indoor pool. “Cramped indoor spaces with poor ventilation are riskier than outdoor spaces,” she says. In general, she notes that indoor spaces have more variables for you to consider and attempt to control.

“If you are at an indoor rec pool then you have to start thinking about the efficiency of the ventilation systems, the amount of space between you and the person in the closest lane to you, and the amount of traffic coming in and out of that pool throughout the day.”

Some other tips to keep in mind if an indoor pool is your only option: Swimming over aqua jogging will require less respiration that could emit more aerosols into the environment. Proctor also says, “make sure you wear nose and ear plugs so your sinuses don’t get inflamed, which could increase your susceptibility to getting respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.”

Social distancing, hygiene, and masks still matter.

All other CDC recommendations come into play whether you’re headed to the beach or the pool: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask when you’re not actively swimming. 

Pick places and times where you can easily socially distance. “Like with running, the earlier you do it, the less people you will be around,” says Proctor. And if you manage to make it to the pool right when they open then you don’t have to factor in all the people who have come in and out all day. 

“Again, human behavior is what we have to worry about in these situations. If you are swimming at a pool or lake where there are a lot of people around then you increase your risk of getting COVID-19, not because of the water but proximity to individuals who are in the body of water with you,” cautions Proctor.