Avoid hazards, whether you’re taking a dip in your backyard or a community pool, a local lake, or the ocean
While experts consider waterborne transmission of the novel coronavirus to be unlikely, swimming at the local neighborhood pool or municipal beachfront might not be a simple option.
Some cities have said they’re keeping public pools closed. And in some communities in the U.S., “closed” may mean that a beach or lakefront is accessible but not staffed with lifeguards, so you might not have these professionals watching as you and your family swim.
Where pools and beaches are open, authorities are likely to be implementing rules designed to limit any potential spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing. That could limit the number of people allowed to swim, shutting some families out.
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To avoid these problems, and provide kids with a way to have some warm-weather fun, some people may be exploring their options for backyard swimming, such as above-ground and blow-up pools. MORE ON OUTDOOR SAFETYBest Type of Cycling Helmets to Help Prevent ConcussionsHow a Tick Bite Can Affect Your HealthGet a Good Sunscreen at a Great Price6 Ways to Stay Safe at the Beach During the PandemicCR’s Sunscreen Ratings & Buying Guide
But some experts are concerned that more at-home pool use might have a tragic side-effect: more drownings, although there’s no evidence of this yet, according to William D. Ramos, Ph.D., member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and associate professor of health and wellness design at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington.
Still, simple precautions can help keep kids, and all other swimmers, safe. Here’s what to do to avoid water-related dangers, whether your family is swimming at home or—if your area is starting to reopen—giving it a go at the local pool.
Drowning is quick and quiet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s usually no splashing or yelling like in the movies.
A key component of drowning prevention is designating one person as the “water watcher,” whose only job is to keep an eye on the pool, no smartphone allowed. But that might be particularly challenging right now, with parents working from home, potentially distracted by emails, phone calls, and video meetings, Ramos says.
One solution is for parents to take turns being the water watcher—rotate shifts where one parent works while the other watches swimming kids.
Ramos also recommends handling swimming at home, whether in an in-ground pool, a large above-ground pool, or a small blow-up one, the same way you would a trip to the neighborhood pool or the beach.
Prepare everything you need—goggles, towels, sunscreen, snacks—ahead of time, so there’s no need to duck back inside the house, leaving swimming kids unobserved. (And if you’re heading to the municipal pool or swimming area, take all your supplies with you when you set up your family’s spot, so you don’t have to run back to the car for sunscreen or snacks.)
Other Steps to Take
• Stay close. Children, as well as people who can’t swim and those who are weak swimmers, should be within an arm’s reach of an adult in case something goes wrong. And even strong swimmers and adults shouldn’t swim alone, says Nichole Steffens, aquatic product manager at the Red Cross.
• Wear a life jacket. Weak swimmers or people who can’t swim should wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket in or around water. Arm floaties for kids and floating pool toys aren’t sufficient, Steffens says. And anyone who goes boating should wear a life vest.
• Put small pools away. If you’ve opted for a smaller temporary or blow-up pool, drain and deflate it or store it somewhere between uses, so it won’t potentially collect rainwater, creating an unexpected opportunity for unattended swimming. This has the added benefit of making sure your kids will be swimming in fresh water every time you use the pool, because temporary pools don’t have filtration or chemical disinfectant systems. Plus, leaving no standing water means you won’t be providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
• Fence larger pools in. If you have an in-ground or larger, semipermanent above-ground pool (which have filtration systems and can be left up all season) you should install a fence to separate it from the house and the rest of the yard so that children can’t get into it when you’re not watching. The gate should lock or latch automatically. And at the beginning of each swimming season, recheck the lock or latch to make sure your child can’t open it, Ramos says—kids who may not have gotten past them a year ago might be able to now.
• Don’t fight a rip current. If you’re swimming at a beach and find yourself caught in a rip current, don’t swim directly toward the shore, or you’ll risk exhausting yourself. The National Ocean Service advises swimming parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current, then swimming back to the shore at an angle.
• Get swimming lessons. These might not be available everywhere right now, but it’s a good idea to get them for your child if you can. Taking swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning, although, it’s important to keep in mind, “Swimming lessons alone do not prevent drowning,” says Candice Dye, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Anyone can become overwhelmed or exhausted in the water.
If swim lessons aren’t an option where you live right now, the Red Cross offers some at-home water safety education tools for kids. You can also take an online water safety course for parents and caregivers.
If you or your child comes down with a case of diarrhea after swimming, a microbe such as cryptosporidium (crypto for short), shiga-toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), or norovirus could be the culprit.
In fact, 31 states reported a total 5,420 cases of such illness related to bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and oceans in the U.S. between 2009 and mid-May of this year, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And some microbes, including crypto, norovirus, and giardia, can sometimes be found in chlorinated pools. Crypto, for instance, which isn’t easily killed by chlorine, can live for days, even in pools that are properly maintained.
A 2018 CDC report found that the largest percentage of disease outbreaks occurred in hotel hot tubs, spas, or pools, so you may want to be extra-cautious if you’re traveling. Some bugs, such as legionella, proliferate in poorly maintained pools.
Public pools often have reports detailing violations found by inspectors. The CDC recommends asking to review those reports if you’re concerned. (For private pools, your only recourse may be buying a pool test kit, available at hardware or pool-supply stores.)
How to Prevent Them
• Obey signs. The CDC recommends staying out of swimming areas that are closed because of contamination, and avoiding water that’s cloudier than usual after a heavy rainfall, discolored, or has an unpleasant smell. Skip a swim in a body of water that has a pipe draining into or around it.
• Don’t swallow water when swimming (or in hot tubs or at playgrounds). And remind children not to swallow water or sand, which can also be germy.
• Keep sick kids and adults out of the water. Don’t swim or allow kids to swim when sick with diarrhea (even with swim diapers, which aren’t foolproof). It’s best to stay out of the water if you have an open cut or wound, too, at least without a waterproof bandage. Check with your doctor first if you have a condition that compromises your immune system.
• Wash up. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before eating food (use hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol if you can’t), and shower with soap and water before and after you swim.
Avoiding sunburn is key to staying safe in the summer. The sun can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes, according to the CDC. Ultraviolet B rays cause sunburn; ultraviolet A rays tan and age your skin. Both contribute to skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the U.S. And while the risk of skin cancer is greatest for whites, people of all ethnicities, including Hispanics, non-Hispanic Blacks, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, can be affected by it.
How to Prevent It
• Apply sunscreen early and often. Put sunscreen on at least 15 minutes before you go outside. Shake it before you use it, and reapply regularly—at least every 2 hours and anytime after you’ve been swimming or sweating.
• Seek shade. Try to stay in the shade during the sunniest part of the day if you can, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Cover up. Sunscreen is just one part of a sun-protection strategy, says Nichole Steffens at the Red Cross. Wear a hat, and periodically put on clothing that covers your skin.
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