, Director of Swimmable Water Programs
Posted: March 30, 2020 at 4:25 pm

Photo by Robert Bye

The Swim Guide was created in order to answer the question, “Is it safe to swim?” For 9 years, we’ve provided up to date recreational water quality data for beaches, lakes, and rivers around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has added a new intonation to the question of whether or not you can get sick if you go to the beach.

We’ve been keeping close tabs on the science related to Covid-19 and exposure through recreational water from the heroes working in medicine, public and environmental health, as well the water and wastewater sector.

Here’s what we know from the international research community about coronavirus transmission in fresh and marine water bodies

As of March 2020, there is not enough research to say for certain whether or not the virus that causes Covid-19 can be transmitted through water, through contact with feces that contain the virus, or through sewage. Research is ongoing though, so we expect clearer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers in the near future.

It may offer some comfort to know that coronaviruses are not strangers to researchers and health professionals, which means scientists know a lot about them. In fact, there are a total of seven (7) known coronaviruses.

The coronavirus that is causing the current (2019-20) pandemic is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). SARS-CoV-2 causes coronavirus disease COVID-19. This coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is related to other coronaviruses you may have heard of, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Based on data from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS, scientists estimate that there is a low risk of transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19 through water or through our poop. The risk of transmission through sewage systems or recreational waters is also estimated to be low.

Is coronavirus in beach water?

The nucleic acid (RNA) of the virus is found in the feces of people infected with the virus that causes Covid-19. At this time, there is little evidence on whether SARS-CoV-2 in it’s infectious state survives after it passes through a person’s digestive system.

Some promising research has shown that SARS-CoV-2 does not seem to survive the routine disinfection process for water or wastewater. However, untreated sewage can make its way into our water bodies, during combined sewage overflows, sewage bypasses, or leaks from septic systems.

New research shows that coronavirus can survive in freshwater, especially if it enters the water as untreated (raw) sewage. Little is known about whether coronavirus can survive in marine water, though experience with other coronaviruses suggests that SARS-CoV-2 does not survive well in saltwater.

Can my family and I contract Covid-19 at the beach?

Yes. You can definitely contract Covid-19 if you head to the beach, river, or lake if you are exposed to the respiratory secretions (coughing and sneezing) of an infected person. This is why beaches in the USA, Europe, the Middle East, and around the world have been closed to the public, or access has been limited: to stop the spread of the virus by preventing communal exposure.

The virus is transmitted primarily person to person, within about 6 feet (2 meters) through respiratory droplets produced when someone sick coughs or sneezes.

Scientists found that SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in aerosols (within air droplets) for up to three hours, and the virus can survive on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days. You are at risk of contracting the virus, or transmitting the virus whenever you are around other people. The beach is no exception. Read more here on social distancing when you’re outside here.

That said, whether or not you can contract Covid-19 through exposure to the virus in the water is not known for certain. However, all scientific evidence and medical research as this time points to there being an extremely low risk of contracting Covid-19 by swimming or recreating in fresh or marine bodies of water.

“There is no evidence showing anyone has gotten COVID-19 through drinking water, recreational water, or wastewater. The risk of COVID-19 transmission through water is expected to be low.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Your greatest risk remains contracting the virus from exposure to an infected person. There are currently no cases of someone contracting Covid-19 as a recreational water illness.

Can routine recreational water monitoring detect coronavirus?

Routine recreational water quality monitoring is already, by default, monitoring health risks associated with sewage and stormwater contamination.

The routine recreational water quality monitoring that lets you know whether or not you can swim at your beaches on any given day is widely used and well understood. Around the world public health units and beach monitoring programs regularly measure the quantity of microbial fecal indicators (E.coli and Enterococci) in bathing waters in order to assess sewage contamination, and therefore, public health risk at beaches, lakes, and rivers.

Keep in mind, sewage and stormwater contain many viruses, pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals, pharmaceuticals; all of which can possibly make you sick. Fecal indicators (E.coli and Enterococci) are used as barometers of sewage contamination at recreational water sites. They allow us to gauge the corresponding health risks bathing waters pose to the public.

In other words, recreational water quality monitoring is already designed to provide you with an indication of your health risks from recreational water illnesses when you go swimming.

At this time, public health does not suggest that recreational water quality monitoring programs need to be modified to account for coronavirus. However, recreational water quality advisories should still always be adhered to protect your health at the beach.

Read more here about how testing for coronavirus in sewage can help diagnose its presence in communities and plan for preparedness.

How can I protect my health from Covid-19 at the beach?

1. Follow the instructions of your local health units and governments on social distancing measures to prevent contracting and transmitting the virus in your community. If the beach is closed, respect the rules in place to protect public health as well as the capacity of your local health services. Access our US beach closure list here.

2. If you are able to go to the beach, follow social distancing instructions, and practice prevention by following the CDCs rules on protecting yourself.

3. Check water quality and adhere to all recreational water quality advisories: Before you go out, check Swim Guide or your local beach monitoring program for the latest test results. If monitoring has been suspended, click here for some basic guidelines that will help you protect your health from contamination at the beach.

Resources on Covid-19 and recreational water

We don’t make this stuff up. We always consult the best science out there on protecting your health at the beach. We are adding to what we know about coronavirus and recreational water quality everyday. We’ll keep you updated with news and fresh research on Covid-19 as it becomes available.

These are some of the incredible sources of information on Covid-19 and water that the world’s science and research community has shared:

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Swim Guide shares the best information we have at the moment you ask for it. Always obey signs at the beach or advisories from official government agencies. Stay alert and check for other swimming hazards such as dangerous currents and tides. Please report your pollution concerns so Affiliates can help keep other beach-goers safe.

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