Is There Any Risk of Coronavirus Exposure When Surfing After Heavy Rains?

oceanside CA
The already wave-rich coastline of Oceanside, CA.Photo: Courtesy of Pete Taras/SURFER Magazine

COVID-19 has the world in a panic. Grocery-store shelves are emptying, countries are on lockdown and we’re all doing our best to stem this quickly-spreading pathogen. Some of us are looking to head to the ocean for a little respite, and with good reason. But is surfing safe in these times, especially in Southern California, which has recently experienced its fair share of rain? Most surfers in Southern California—especially those located in San Diego County—are accustomed to hearing warnings about avoiding the ocean for 72 hours after heavy rains to avoid contracting a cocktail of diseases from polluted runoff. But should we be taking extra precautions to avoid the ocean during this time? Is there a risk of being exposed to the coronavirus when paddling out after the rain in places with poor wastewater management systems?

“At this point,” says Surfrider Staff Scientist Katie Day, “it is unclear if the COVID-19 virus is able to undergo ‘fecal-oral transmission’” —i.e., swimming in raw or undertreated sewage—“but the general consensus from the research community is that it might be possible.” This is, after all, how many a surfer (including yours truly) has contracted any number of other diseases and infections including E. Coli, MRSA, giardia, hepatitis… the list goes on.

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As a general rule, Surfrider recommends staying out of waterways (meaning the ocean, but also rivers and streams) edging on densely populated areas for at least 72 hours after a rainstorm, but also taking the extra precaution of keeping tabs on local beach water quality as “high fecal bacteria counts indicate the presence of raw or undertreated sewage.”

While epidemiologists continue to wrack their brains and resources over a way to contain and kill COVID-19, what information we do have is based on previous known strains of coronavirus, of which there are six (four that are common), according to the CDC.

Research of SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19) thus far shows that the virus does remain “viable and infectious, at least temporarily,” in freshwater environments, but the jury of the scientific community, including the CDC, is still out on whether it remains infectious in salt water, especially after (presumably) passing through the UV radiation of waste treatment plants.

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Thankfully, the risk of contracting COVID-19 from feces seems low, but Day writes that “additional research is needed to confirm. Due to the current uncertainty, areas affected by sewage spills, leaks or overflows, or have high numbers of septic tanks, cesspools or homeless populations, could have increased risk for potential transmission of the virus in affected waterways.”

“Fortunately,” Day writes, “the virus is enveloped, meaning it’s highly susceptible to chlorination and bleach…. Typical treatments that include sterilization with chlorine and other disinfectants are highly effective at eradicating the virus.” And what about chlorinated wave pools—are those safe? To that point, Day says that, “as long as pool managers are using proper disinfection and maintenance practices, exposure to wave pool water shouldn’t increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Of course, if you’re also headed out to a populated beach, you’ll also likely find yourself coming into closer contact with other beachgoers and breaching the CDC’s recommended “social distancing” of 6 to 10 feet.

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“Even if recreating in polluted waterways is determined not to be a transmission route for COVID-19, it could expose you to other pathogens, reducing your overall immune system,” says Day. Either way, Surfrider suggests exercising caution during this time. If you’re on the fence about whether to paddle out this week after the rain, there might be no time like the present to heed to the 72-hour rule.

This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.

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