Thinking About COVID-19 In The Ocean

Thinking About COVID-19 In The Ocean

Thinking About COVID-19 In The Ocean

Courtesy of WOWSA, La Jolla, California.

Craig Lord, Editor in Chief of Swimming World Magazine brought up important points in highlighting potential risks of COVID-19 for open water swimmers while raise questions for the sport of open water swimming.

His concerns were also echoed – rather amplified – by Professor Kimberly Prather, an Atmospheric Chemist, Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, and a Distinguished Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of California San Diego who gave stern warning to ocean swimmers, surfers, coastal walkers and runners, fisherman and sailors [see article here].

The professor works very close to the famed La Jolla Cove in San Diego. She explained why the beach is one of the most dangerous places to be with the novel coronavirus, “I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now. [The coronavirus] could [kill you] if you go out there and get in the wrong air.”

Dr. Prather believes the new coronavirus is spread because it is kicked up in the air from the water by the crash of ocean waves. Because the coronavirus are light enough to float through the air, the viral particles are pushed onshore due to ocean winds.

But I do not understand how the COVID-19 is getting into – and existing at least for some time – in the Pacific Ocean,” pondered Steven Munatones.

Lord pointed out that the University of North Carolina researchers in 2009 stated, “Water contaminated with these viruses may continue to pose an exposure risk even after infected individuals are no longer present.”

Munatones wondered, “So I guess COVID-19 is in our coastal waters and the risk of being infected is because swimmers would swim into their particles or perhaps breathe them in while they are either swimming in the Pacific Ocean or onshore due to ocean breezes? So the question is how did COVID-19 get into the ocean in the first place?

The answer may be provided by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in addressing the question, “Is the COVID-19 virus found in feces?” The CDC’s answer, “The virus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in the feces of some patients diagnosed with COVID-19. The amount of virus released from the body (shed) in stool, how long the virus is shed, and whether the virus in stool is infectious are not known.

“The risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 from the feces of an infected person is also unknown…there has been no confirmed fecal-oral transmission of COVID-19 to date

But some people have questioned the guidance of the CDC due to its shifting position regarding face masks.

So let us assume that COVID-19 is released in the ocean by the feces of patients with COVID-19,” asked Munatones. “We cannot rule that out completely in all scenarios. So the sick person heads out to the ocean, poops a bit, and continues swimming on. That would still be a very minute amount of COVID-19 in the gigantic ocean – and I think the likelihood of another person swimming into that person’s infected fecal matter is pretty low.

But since COVID-19 particles can be blown from the ocean to the shore according to Professor Prather, it makes sense that the reverse is also true. That is, the COVID-19 viral particles are pushed from inland areas by onshore breezes and dropped over the coastal waters.”

But in this case, the likelihood of people living along the Pacific Ocean shorelines – from Sydney and Melbourne to Tokyo and Seattle to San Francisco to San Diego – breathing in airborne COVID-19 particles is much higher than ocean swimmers running into the floating (or underwater?) COVID-10 particles. But for a virus to remain viable, I would think it needs a combination of specific environmental conditions such as temperature, lack of UV exposure and humidity to exist.”

Other University of North Carolina researchers concluded that coronaviruses can survive and remain infectious for long periods in different water types and temperatures from 4°C to 25°C. Their main point of worry is consistent with Professor Prather, “If water or sewage contaminated with SARS-CoV becomes aerosolized, it could potentially expose large numbers of people to infection.”

Lord highlighted that these risks have been known since 2008 [see here].

I may not fully understand what the scientists recommend or what they theorize, but I wonder if any medical professional or researcher has ever tracked the coronavirus directly – or indirectly – back to ocean swimming – or even walking on the beach,” asked Munatones. “Ocean swimmers have long known to avoid the ocean after a heavy rain due to urban runoff, but since the coronavirus strains have been around many years, and hundreds of millions of people have entered in and walked along the beaches of California since 2008, it would seem likely that at least a few people would have directly linked SARS-CoV to swimming in or walking along the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have had at least 12 years to investigate this possibility.

If, on the other hand, there have no been any documented cases of infection – or possibly even theorized cases of infection, this means that the chances of catching the novel coronavirus must be incredibly low. And certainly much higher possibilities of infection are a fact when swimmers – or surfers, fishermen, sailors, windsurfers, divers, SUP paddlers, kayakers, or beach runners are on land, living their normal lives

Every open water swimmer knows about the impact of urban runoff on water quality after a rain,” says Steven Munatones. “The water turns murky and brown; there is often an ugly foam, patches of filthy water, and the water can smell quite fecal to say the least. Those are the times to avoid the water.”

With more than 600 million people (~10% of the world’s population) living in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level including nearly 40% of all Americans who live near a coast, these predictions are a chilling threat to the lives of all who work or recreate in or near every ocean around the world.

Quite a scary thought.

But as a veteran physician from Newport Beach, California believes, “The fear virus is well rooted, and will take time to eradicate. Focusing on scientific innovation, and stories of recovery, the context of individual risk, and planning the future state is therapeutic. Remember Roosevelt’s most famous words about fear (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself).”

Penelope Nagel from La Jolla, California sums up her thoughts on the risk of ocean swimming, “Regarding our current pandemic, it stands to reason if [the novel coronavirus] survives in water, it would be aerosolized into the air reaching every inch of the planet and, therefore swimming in my opinion is not going cause a disproportionate spread to swimmers.

Am I worried that swimming will increase my chances of getting Covid-19, no. It is a proven fact that cold water swimmers receive a boost in immunity as a result of swimming. If I could get everyone out in the ocean swimming to improve their immune systems, I would

Swim on.

And breathe on. As Anne Gherini writes, “When you first step out on the sand and allow your lungs to be filled with salty misty air, your brain may be receiving instant benefits. The negative ions – oxygen ions with an extra electron attached, produced via water molecules) in the ocean air can actually help calm your brain.”

In these trying times of stress, frustration, unemployment or underemployment, 24/7 coverage of death and infection statistics by the media,and the fear of the unknown, science tells us – as does common logic – that the beach can have a calming and profound impact on the human brain and mental health.

But this observation is in direct contrast to the warnings presented by Professor Prather, the researchers at the University of North Carolina, and Lord. At the end of the day, swimmers will take their own counsel – or may be prevented from using coastal waterways by local authorities.

For most swimmers, long-held common wisdom will undoubtedly prevail. Louise Economy (alumna of University of Hawaii Hilo’s tropical conservation and environment science graduate program who works at the Hawaiʻi Department of Health), Tracy Wiegner (University of Hawaii Hilo professor of marine science), Ayron Strauch (hydrologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources), Jonathan Awaya (University of Hawaii Hilo professor of biology), and Tyler Gerken (graduate research assistant at the University of Washington) authored a paper entitled Rainfall and Streamflow Effects on Estuarine Staphylococcus aureus and Fecal Indicator Bacteria Concentrations that confirms the downside of swimming in coastal areas impacted with urban runoff. As Professor Wiegner advices, “Swimmers and surfers should stay home after a heavy rainfall, since rainfall and turbidity are associated with higher pathogen concentrations. A good rule of thumb for recreational water users is if the water is brown, turn around.”

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Steven Munatones