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Public pools vs. COVID-19 - is it safe to swim?

Chlorine can deactivate COVID-19, but not if it's too busy fighting other germs.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — We all know chlorine and bromine - the two cleaning chemicals found in swimming pools - can kill bacteria. However, what kind of chance does chlorine have against viruses such as COVID-19?

It depends, health expert Dr. Payal Kohli said.

"There have been studies looking at whether or not chlorine and bromine - which are usually the two chemicals put in pool water - inactivate the virus, and the good news is that they do in fact inactivate the virus in laboratory settings in the doses that are usually put in pool water. However, the word of caution that I really want to give to people is that, if somebody’s in the pool and they’re wearing deodorant, or powder, of if they pee in the pool or poop in the pool, all of those types of things can actually inactivate the chlorine so that it’s not as available to work at deactivating the virus. Even something as simple as someone not having taken a shower and then jumping into the pool, the oils from their skin can actually sop up that chlorine so that not as much is available to inactivate the virus," she said. 

Chlorine is not an invincible chemical, according to Kohli. In fact, it's a lot like humans - it can only handle so much - especially if someone in the pool were to carry a high viral load.

"If somebody spits and they have a lot of viral particles, and then two minutes later you go and swim through that water and take a mouthful of what they just spat into, that chlorine doesn’t even have time to work," Kohli said.

If you have a private swimming pool in your backyard that is only used by you and your family, Kohli said it's safe to swim in it. However, she believes it is unlikely public swimming pools will be safe this summer, unless extremely strict rules are set in place.

“I think until we have a vaccine it’s going to be highly unlikely that community pools will be a safe place to go. The only way I could imagine a pool could potentially open in the summer is to have limits on the number of people who can get into the pool so that everyone in the pool can maintain the social distance that we’ve been talking about, to check everyone with temperature screenings and/or potential testing to make sure they’re not infected before they get into the pool, and to give people strict precautions about hygiene and all of that stuff before they get into the pool, just to make sure that that chlorine is available for the virus," she said.

The recreational supervisor at San Angelo's Department of Parks and Recreation said the department is unsure of when/if public pools will be open, and permission must be given by the governor first.

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