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When beaches reopen, are you safe from coronavirus in the water?

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 5/16/2020 By Brooke Baitinger, South Florida Sun Sentinel
a group of people on a beach: Scientists are studying whether the coronavirus is a risk in beach water. © Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Scientists are studying whether the coronavirus is a risk in beach water.

When Palm Beach County’s beaches start reopening next week, stir-crazy Floridians will no doubt flock there to shake off their cabin fever from the last couple months. But are they safe from the new coronavirus while they walk, jog and bask on the sand or swim in the ocean?

Scientists aren’t certain how likely you are to get the virus from the beach — not just from people camping out too close to one another, but from the water itself. 

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There’s no concrete evidence that there’s a greater risk of catching the coronavirus from the water, or even that the virus can survive in salt water very long, but scientists are studying it. Some of them have suspicions about its behavior based on past virus outbreaks.

Among them is Kim Prather, a leading atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Her research suggests there’s a chance that in areas where ocean water mixes with untreated wastewater contaminated by the virus, the belch of the ocean waves could aerosolize the virus into particles and coastal winds could carry it back to shore. 


Prather’s research was funded last month by the National Science Foundation to test the viability of the new coronavirus in sewage-polluted coastal waters and sea spray. Her study is scheduled to wrap up near the end of the month.

She isn’t alone in her assumption. Researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy highlighted the research gaps regarding the coronavirus and warned that the potential for the virus to spread through sewage-polluted waters should not be ruled out.

It’s a concept that Brian LaPointe said could be a particular problem for South Florida because of the deterioration of the water treatment system. He’s a researcher at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and has been studying water quality in South Florida for decades. 

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“The coronavirus is most likely to be a problem in areas without adequate wastewater infrastructure and broken pipes,” LaPointe said. “If you have a good wastewater treatment system with disinfection, it’s a pretty safe bet that disinfection will kill the coronavirus.”

That’s why you’re probably safe to swim in properly maintained swimming pools, where chlorine kills the virus. The risk in sea water, if any, is less clear.

Health departments in the state’s coastal counties test their beaches for fecal bacteria, called enterococci, as part of the state’s Healthy Beaches program, but swimming advisories are issued only after two poor water tests, which can take up to four days to measure. And the program doesn’t test for the coronavirus.

Most local health departments stopped monitoring beach water for fecal bacteria when the beaches shut down. Health departments in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have resumed monitoring, but Palm Beach County has yet to do so before beaches open on Monday.

This week’s tests show good water quality at the beaches, with the exception of one or two in Miami-Dade County. That can change quickly when a storm like the one forecast this weekend stirs things up.

So far, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health agencies have not warned that the virus can be spread by ocean spray or coastal breezes. But they have warned that it can be spread by droplets from sneezes and coughs, and by coming into contact with it on surfaces.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates transmission of the coronavirus from fecal sources to be low. There have been no reports of fecal-oral transmission of COVID-19 to date, the agency said.

Other human coronaviruses have been shown to be less stable than the more common non-enveloped human viruses in marine environments, the agency said. But they still don’t know whether it’s infectious in sewage in fresh or marine water.

Whether the coronavirus can even be transmitted through fecal matter is up for debate, a reflection of how little is known about the virus. A study published last month in the journal Nature found that the coronavirus did not appear to remain infectious in stool samples.

Other sampling, though, has found the virus in feces, which can wind up in the waterways from heavy rains or from sewer line breaks. So it’s conceivable there might be coronavirus in ocean water near sewage runoffs, LaPointe said.

He cited research that suggests coronaviruses can survive in water for more than a day. That’s why the need for more research is so important, he said.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to do more research so we do know better how abundant coronavirus is in the partially treated wastewater that’s being pumped out into the ocean, and how effective the disinfection process is against it,” he said. “The next step would be monitoring coastal waters for its presence and measuring its ability to form aerosols, which could increase the risk of exposure to humans in coastal areas.”

LaPointe, who is almost 70 years old and has had his fair share of exposure to waterborne pathogens by virtue of his career, is avoiding the beach.

“I would err on the conservative side,” he said. "The last thing I want to do right now is be on a crowded beach with people who aren’t practicing social distancing or wearing masks, particularly in an area with onshore winds blowing those aerosols onto the beach.

“It’s just a scenario where I personally would not choose to do something like that," he said.

Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: bbaitinger@sunsentinel.com, 954-422-0857 or Twitter: @bybbaitinger

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©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com 

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