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An Infectious Disease Expert Explains Why Beaches May Be Safer Than Pools This Summer

An Infectious Disease Expert Explains Why Beaches May Be Safer Than Pools This Summer
  • Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shared that coronavirus isn't likely to spread in fresh lake water or in the ocean.

  • The greatest risk you face at a beach has to do with crowds on the sand.

  • You can lower the COVID-19 risks by getting fully vaccinated, wearing face masks and keeping distance between you and others around you.

A year after the pandemic changed the way we celebrate the summer season, Americans might be wondering if their local beach will be closed in 2021 due to the novel coronavirus. Because COVID-19 vaccines are readily available in every single state to Americans above the age of 12, and more than 150 million Americans have been vaccinated by this point, many beaches will reopen with relaxed guidelines this summer. And like last year, the risk for COVID-19 at any beach isn't focused in on getting into the water.

Current CDC guidelines maintain that lakes, oceans and other sources of fresh water in our communities aren't sources of high COVID-19 transmission risk, no matter how many people have previously taken a dip. "There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread to people through water in these places," reads the agency website. Theoretically, SARS-CoV-2 virus particles can end up in any water source, including your nearby shoreline; but they'd largely be diluted and not actively infectious in vast bodies of water like the ocean, explains Sudeb Dalai, M.D., Ph.D., an infectious disease physician and professor within Stanford University's School of Medicine.

Rather, the most apparent risk is being around other people who might want to take a swim, too — and touching shared surfaces on the beach, or using the same indoor facilities like locker rooms or restrooms.

Can COVID-19 survive in the ocean or lake?

Just because ocean water or a nearby lake isn't treated with chemicals like pools doesn't mean that it poses more of a threat for swimmers. A March study published in Water Research uses data generated by a laboratory test that indicates that virus particles may linger in seawater for up to 48 hours but become less infectious as time passes.

Oceans, in particular, are vast and have a way of self-regulating any germs that may appear on coastlines during the summer, Dr. Dalai explains. "The rapid dispersion of any infectious agents in a turbulent body of water such as an ocean or a lake would likely mitigate the risk of acquiring an infection from contact or submersion in the water," Dr. Dalai clarifies.

How to keep yourself safe while swimming:

Just like any other time you've spent outside since the pandemic began, you'll need to practice social distancing while heading to the pool or the beach. That may include wearing a maskbut only while on land, as it can be a choking hazard to swim with a mask while in water. Your local municipality may have rules for you to observe while at beaches, but also keep these tips in mind to lower COVID-19 risks this summer:

  1. Get fully vaccinated. A COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to reduce risk drastically against severe infections and is effective at preventing spread in outdoor spaces like the beach.

  2. Keep your hands clean as possible. Especially if you're in a public space, make sure you're sanitizing your hands in order to prevent spreading any germs onto shared surfaces — or tracking germs from these surfaces onto yourself and your belongings. Do everything you can to avoid touching your face, as this is a primary way that highly-trafficked surfaces and areas can end up introducing SARS-CoV-2 into your respiratory system.

  3. Disinfect or sanitize any chairs or tables. It's better if you can bring your own chairs and towels to sit on, but if you are using a lounge chair, be sure to wipe it down throughout with a disinfectant wipe. Bringing as many supplies that are your own is best, because you know these are clean!

  4. Practice good swimming hygiene. If you can, don't spit or blow your nose into the water while you are swimming. Doing so in close quarters like a pool can influence overall risk factors, especially if you are swimming with others not in your household. Avoid swallowing any lake water or letting water enter your mouth as well. While the risk for COVID-19 blood-borne transmission is also unknown, you should avoid swimming with any open cuts or sores.

  5. Keep your crowd small and make your trip as short as possible. While being outside with friends is safer than inviting them into your home, you should observe the CDC's request of keeping groups to 10 or less while outside. This will ensure that beaches and pools don't become dangerously overcrowded, and give more people a chance to enjoy them. You should also keep your visit as brief as possible to give others the opportunity to enjoy the beach at reduced capacity.

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