Coronavirus: Is it safe to swim in a pool, lake or the ocean?

Experts say that swimming in any body of water doesn’t represent a problem for humans, but being around people at crowded pools and beaches does.

There have been many grey areas around COVID -19 but one thing's for certain - crowds of people should be avoided and keeping a distance of at least two metres from one another is a must. But with the warm weather upon us, the way we normally would do summer is also changing.

People would typically head to public pools and beaches to cool off, but again, this year hasn’t been a typical one.

“Coronaviruses can persist for some time in water. Probably in natural waters, you know maybe a few hours,” says Curtis Suttle, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

Even though viruses can live in water, it doesn’t mean they can easily infect people.

“I think the point is that this SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus and it affects respiratory systems, and so we catch it by inhaling the virus,” explains Suttle. “You don't typically catch it by eating it or drinking it. I think the probability -- even if there was some of the coronavirus in water -- for humans it doesn't represent a problem.”

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Suttle adds that viruses cannot replicate unless they infect something.

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“You can almost think of it like a spore from a fungus or pollen from a tree or something like that,” he explains. “They are kind of in a reproductive stage that's waiting around to find a suitable host to infect. Viruses are extremely host-specific so they can typically only infect one, or maybe just a few different organisms. So unless they actually encounter that organism and they are able to get into it and start reproducing, essentially they will die off.”

In fact, he says that when we go into ocean water we are swimming among millions of viruses.

“Certainly most people don't realize that in a tablespoon of seawater, there are 50 million viruses and so each time we go swimming we typically just inadvertently, swallow a tablespoon or so of water,” says Suttle.”We are swallowing quite as many viruses as there are people in North America, but because viruses are so specific in terms of what they infect, they're not going to infect us.”

The viruses are infecting other microbes in the oceans, a process that he says is critical in keeping those ecosystems functioning.


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So what about swimming pools and other public splash areas?

“Really, we don't think that there should be risk of COVID-19 spreading through swimming pools,” says Dr. Michael Schwandt with Vancouver Coastal Health. “The same chlorination and other processes that keep swimming pools safe from transmission of other infections should also be effective for COVID-19.”

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Experts say pools and other public areas this summer are cause for greater concern when it comes to overcrowding.

“There would be less transmission through the water itself than the potential for close contact,” explains Dr. Schwandt. “Some of the same advice that would apply to other situations is still going to apply on the deck of a pool, or on a beach. Sticking to smaller groups, preferably one's own household contacts or a small bubble of people beyond that would be good advice. We encourage people to get outside to enjoy some sun and physical activity, to do so safely, preventing the transmission of COVID-19 to physical distancing.”

The key takeaway is to practice social distancing no matter how you choose to cool off this summer. Of course, many of these places remain closed to the public and vary from province to province. Before hitting your local place of choice to cool off, check your jurisdiction's website.



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