Cooling off during the summer will likely look different in the age of the pandemic, with many people asking: Can the virus that causes COVID-19 stay active in pool water?
There’s no evidence the new coronavirus can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Proper operation and maintenance of these places — including disinfection with chlorine and bromine — “should inactivate the virus in the water,” the CDC said.
Being around other people using the pool and its amenities is a different concern.
“The bigger issue is that you have to change in the shared locker rooms, and people are often touching the mouth, nose and face and then maybe touching the lockers,” Dr. Michael Ison, an infectious disease physician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, told TODAY.
“If you do, wash your hands carefully before and after swimming in the pool.”
Unless you’re diving or jumping into the pool, the very act of getting into the water often requires people to touch ladders or railings used by others. Getting out of the pool definitely involves touching a surface, so that’s another reminder to wash your hands.
Of course, many health clubs and public pools may not reopen soon in the first place, depending on local guidelines.
NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres predicted a “new normal” for pools, which included social distancing.
He recommended talking to the pool operator and asking:
- What are you doing to clean and disinfect the pool and its amenities?
- How will social distancing be enforced?
- What will you do if someone tests positive?
- How do I know my child will be safe?
"Social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another," Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said Sunday on Meet the Press.
The beach was a concern for another reason, even though there's much more space there to be 6 feet apart than in places like the grocery store.
"You have to remember on the beach, you’re spending a lot more time there, you’re socializing more,” Torres said.
“With some people, alcohol is involved and once you start drinking, it is easy to say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to go say hi to my friend real quick, I don’t need this mask, I can hug my buddy, it’s going to be OK.’ That is the concern with a lot of experts … You’re going to break that social distancing and it’s going to be more likely to spread.”
What about swimming in open water?
Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and immunology at The University of Arizona in Tucson, said human pathogenic viruses have a shorter survival time in salt water than fresh water, so he would expect the same for coronaviruses.
"Swimming in surface waters that are not disinfected could be an issue if the face is submerged — people with the virus may release (it) into the water. Probably a good idea to keep social distancing when swimming in non-disinfected surface waters," Gerba noted.
Other experts believe the sheer volume of H2O in large bodies of water means there’s little risk.
“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,” Roberta Lavin, professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Nursing, told the nonprofit organization U.S. Masters Swimming.
The current coronavirus concerns may be a reminder of the polio epidemic, which emptied community pools in the mid-1900s until studies showed chlorine could inactivate the virus, according to The History of Vaccines.
Bottom line: There’s no evidence showing anyone has gotten COVID-19 through drinking water, recreational water or wastewater, the CDC said, noting “the risk of COVID-19 transmission through water is expected to be low.”
Just keep that distance from other people.