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by Elaine K Howley

September 22, 2021

Important information for swimmers during the coronavirus pandemic

It’s been more than 18 months since the coronavirus appeared in the U.S., and it seems the news just keeps getting worse. As of the week of Sept. 20, the COVID-19 pandemic had killed more Americans—about 675,000—than the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. And around the world, more than 229 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Although three vaccines are available in the U.S., the pandemic grinds on and continues to disrupt life as we once knew it. Recent increases in case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths spurred on by a more virulent mutation of the virus threaten a longer return to normal than first hoped when the vaccines debuted. 

Here’s an updated look at what you need to know about what’s happening and how that might impact your swimming.

What’s the latest regarding the Delta variant and Mu variant?

Viruses mutate, and every time a virus replicates, that’s an opportunity for a genetic mutation to occur. Because there’s so much virus circulating in the world right now, there are untold trillions of opportunities every day for a stronger, more virulent version of the virus to become the predominant form of the virus in circulation.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, several strains of the virus have circulated. The Delta variant is dominating the conversation because it’s been found to be more than twice as contagious as previous variants of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Delta variant has, in short order, become the predominant variant of the virus in the U.S.; as of the week of Sept. 5 though Sept. 11, the Delta variant accounts for 99.4% of all COVID-19 infections in the country.

Some evidence also suggests that the Delta strain might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people than other variants. Because of its prevalence, its high transmissibility, and the risk of more severe illness, the Delta variant is a particular threat to communities with lower vaccination rates.

The Mu variant is the next variant on the horizon that’s being watched closely. To date, it’s only responsible for 0.1% of infections in the U.S., but public health experts are monitoring how it moves and how it affects the people it infects.

Because of the rise of these variants, the CDC in July released updated guidance that urged vaccination and recommended that everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission of the virus wear a mask in public indoor places, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Still, vaccination is the best protection against the Delta and other variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and it appears that the vaccines are protective against variants of the virus. Communities with high rates of vaccination are seeing less circulation of variants, as there are fewer chances for the virus to mutate as it jumps from host to host.

For those who can’t be vaccinated, such as people with certain immune disorders and children under age 12 for whom the vaccine has not yet been approved, you can protect yourself from these new variants when you’re swimming by:

  • Maintaining at least 6 feet distance from others at all times
  • Wearing a tightly fitted mask when you’re not in the water
  • Limiting your time indoors with people from other households
  • Continuing practicing good hand hygiene

What’s the latest news regarding boosters?

Recently, public health officials floated the idea of administering booster shots eight months after the initial two-dose course of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to help prolong and boost immunity.

However, on Sept. 17, an FDA advisory panel decided against recommending booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for everyone over age 16 who’d previously been vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. Instead, the panel recommended that those over age 65 and those who are at risk of more severe disease access a third shot to support ongoing defense against infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The FDA has signaled that instead of focusing on booster shots, the push should be on getting as many people vaccinated as possible as soon as possible.

So far, children under age 12 are not eligible to receive any vaccine, as studies into the appropriate dose and effectiveness are ongoing. There is hope that later in the fall, younger children may become eligible for vaccination. 

How do the coronavirus vaccines work?

There are three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S., one manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, one by Moderna, and one by Johnson & Johnson. The first two require injections administered in two doses a few weeks apart, and the J&J vaccine is a single shot.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines deliver genetic material that mimics the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. Your immune system learns to recognize the material as foreign and that triggers an immune response in your body. This is why some people feel run-down, have a fever, or develop other symptoms in the day or two after receiving the shot. Those symptoms are a good thing. They mean your immune system is learning how to protect you from the virus. Once that immune system memory has been established, your body can successfully fight off the virus if you’re exposed to it later. 

The J&J vaccine works a little differently. The J&J shot uses a harmless virus to act like a “Trojan Horse” to sneak into cells and prime the immune system to be ready in case of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

—For a deeper dive into the science behind how coronavirus vaccines work, read “COVID-19 Vaccines and Coronavirus Variants: Background Information for Swimmers

When can I swim after getting a vaccine?

The coronavirus vaccines provide increased protection against COVID-19, but you may experience some side effects that could impact when you can next swim. 

Common and completely normal responses include: 

  • Redness, pain, tenderness, and swelling at the injection site
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and chills
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

Side effects tend to be mild to moderate and typically resolve within 24 to 72 hours after the shot. Depending on the range of side effects you’re experiencing, you may want to skip your swim until these effects resolve. 

Remember, these side effects are a good thing. They signal that your immune system is responding to the vaccine appropriately and building the antibodies you need to be protected from the virus in the future. 

Though there’s little in the way of formal data, anecdotally, many people say the side effects from the second shot tend to be worse than the first. There also seems to be a tendency for these reactions to be stronger in younger people. The theory is that younger people usually have more robust immune systems that produce a stronger response to the vaccine.

But there’s no hard and fast rule as to how you’ll respond. Just be aware that if you’re in your 20s and just had your second dose, you may need to take a couple days off from swimming after the shot to rest. You may feel like you’ve got the flu, and rest and fluids are a good way to help ease some of those symptoms. Folks in their 70s might feel well enough to go to the pool the next day but you might not feel so great and need a couple days off. 

If side effects increase in severity or you develop an allergic reaction to the vaccine, contact your doctor for guidance. 

Can I swim with my local Masters group during the pandemic?

If your local Masters group has worked out a safe protocol for swimming, that’s great. Follow all local guidelines and instructions when using the pool or meeting with other swimmers for exercise. Many facilities have doubled down on efforts to sanitize surfaces, enforce social distancing, and encourage masking. Keep following those directives.

When it comes to swimming with your local Masters team, little has changed regarding keeping yourself and others safe from COVID-19. But there’s still plenty you can do to limit the spread and keep yourself and your swim friends safe:

  • Break the chain. The coronavirus is transmitted through the air in tiny droplets called aerosols expelled from the lungs. Limiting your time in an enclosed space with others can reduce your chances of inhaling droplets from an infected person. Increasing the ventilation in an indoor pool can also limit the accumulation of exhaled viral particles.
  • Head outside. Swimming outdoors is an even better option, as flow of air helps move any viral particles along before they can infect you.
  • Keep it clean. It’s less likely that you’ll become infected by contact with a contaminated surface, but frequently sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs can help reduce the chances of this form of transmission. And chlorine is a sanitizing agent that’s believed to deactivate the virus that causes COVID-19. You can’t contract COVID-19 from the pool water itself.
  • Stay distant. Social distancing—staying at least 6 feet from others—is still an important means of slowing the spread of COVID-19. This goes for while you’re in the pool too. Many pools are limiting the number of people who can be in the pool at the same time, and some aren’t permitting more than one person in a lane at a time. If there’s two people in the lane, you can split and send off from opposite ends. If you’re circle swimming or there’s more than two, when the first person finishes at the wall, the second person should stop at the backstroke flags. A third person should stop near the middle of the pool to maintain that social distancing.
  • Wear a mask. Mask wearing is critical for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Wear your mask right up to the water’s edge and put it back on as soon as you get out of the pool. Bring an extra one in case your first one becomes wet, as a wet mask doesn’t work very well and is very difficult to breathe through.
  • Consider doubling up. The CDC is now recommending that you wear two masks to further limit the chances of the virus spreading. This is a recommendation that’s believed to help reduce the transmission of the more contagious variants of the virus.
  • Stay home. If you’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus, or if you have symptoms of the disease (including but not limited to fever, headaches, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, or nausea), contact your doctor and self-isolate. Skip your swim and alert the pool manager if you’ve been to the pool recently so they can notify anyone you may have been in contact with of a potential exposure.
  • Consider getting the vaccine. The spread of COVID-19 will become controlled once we achieve herd immunity, which we can achieve quicker if more people receive the vaccine as soon as possible.

Are you ready to take the next step in your swimming journey? Try a free workout with a Masters club this July as part of our Try Masters Swimming campaign.

All you need to do is fill out our trial membership form, find a participating club in your area, and pick a workout time to swim with the club. Come experience for yourself the amazing emotional, mental, and physical health benefits tens of thousands of adults just like you across the country are already enjoying.

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