What’s new with the COVID-19 pandemic and how can you keep swimming safely in the time of coronavirus?

It’s been a year since the coronavirus appeared in the U.S. and nearly a year since the petite particle began upending our lives and uprooting our swimming routines. Although there’s some hope that the end of this disaster may be in sight, mutations in the virus threaten a longer return to normal than first hoped.

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

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 mimic 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 most 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 may 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.

When will swimming events start up again?

Quite simply, we don’t know yet. It all depends on when we reach so-called herd immunity, or a level of protection against the virus that curbs its transmission. When enough people are immune to the virus, we can resume gatherings, travel, and other swimming-business-as-usual events.

Early on, the hope was that 60 to 70 percent immunity would be enough, but now, it’s looking like we might need to achieve a higher percentage to stamp out spread of COVID-19.

This puts estimates anywhere from the spring of 2022 if early vaccination rates continue to the summer or early fall of this year as states continue to work out the kinks within their vaccine administration programs and things speed up. So it’s not outrageous to hope that we might be able to gather for some open water events or swim meets later this year.

In short, the sooner more folks are fully inoculated, the sooner we can get back to normal. Until then, we need to be extra careful about gatherings. U.S. Masters Swimming has postponed both of its pool national championships, Short Course Nationals tentatively to July 21-25 and Long Course Nationals tentatively to Oct. 6-10. (These meets are the renamed versions of Spring and Summer Nationals, respectively, a change that takes effect for just this year.) Be sure to check back at usms.org for updates before making any travel plans.

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

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.

What are coronavirus variants?

Another concerning storyline in this ongoing pandemic is virus’s innate ability to mutate quickly. Every time a virus replicates is an opportunity for a genetic mutation to occur. Because there’s so much virus circulating in the world right now, that means 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. It’s evolution in real time with real consequences for human health.

We’re already seeing such variations on the SARS-CoV-2 virus cropping up around the world. The resulting mutant strains are alarming in their ability to circulate more easily and potentially evade vaccines that have been developed for the original strain. Increasingly, it’s believed that some of these variants might be deadlier as well as more easily transmitted.

There are currently three mutated strains public health officials are most concerned about: The U.K., South African, and Brazil variants. It’s unclear at this time how much, if any, protection the vaccines can offer against these variants. There just isn’t enough data to be sure yet. Because of that, even if you have been vaccinated, it’s important to continue wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, and practicing social distancing as you have for the past year to slow the spread and avoid becoming infected with one of these new strains.

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

How will these new variants impact my swimming?

Because these new variants appear to be more easily transmitted, that increases the risk of picking up the virus through the kind of casual contact you might have with other people at the pool or other places you go. This is why in early February, the CDC began recommending that people wear two masks anytime they leave home. The better the mask or masks fit, the fewer aerosolized droplets will escape and the fewer virus particles will sneak in, protecting you and everyone else.

To protect yourself from these new variants when you’re swimming:

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

Originally posted by US Masters Swimming.