Swimming Canada has released a first version of their Return To Swimming Framework, the 22-page “Covid-19 Return to Swimming Resource Document”. And it’s a good one. Although I know for a fact that many in the swimming community are pushing far more relaxed alternatives.
It’s important to note that Swimming Canada assembled a large group of experts to share their knowledge, with the result being a Framework that puts all of the emphasis on a safe Return to Swimming by all clubs. At no time does the plan give any importance to how much swimmers, parents and coaches really, really, really want to get back in the water.
There are two key elements to Swimming Canada’s Framework:
- The establishment of an Assessment Group within each club, responsible for being creating and overseeing their Return To Swimming [RTS] plan
- Mandating the creation of an initial small group of swimmers who will stress test the RTS Plan before a larger implementations are allowed
Quick Summary of the “Plan”
The key aspect of the Plan’s preparation stage is the establishment of an Assessment Group consisting of 4-6 people. Swimming Canada recommends that it include the club’s Head Coach, President, a medical doctor, public health professional and aquatic facility manager.
This group must become aware of all relevant facility, municipal, provincial and any other jurisdictional groups that have a role in the club’s operations. Once developed, the club’s RTS Plan should be shared with their Provincial Section for review.
The Plan must ensure facilities are setup to enable physical distancing, have specific and separated entry and exit points, and strategic traffic routing through the facility. Other elements of the plan would include the preference that swimmers arrive in their training suits, avoid change rooms where possible, and no dryland training at the pool. Workouts should be sent online to swimmers, with online reviews ahead of the session.
Step 1 – First group in the water
This step is to last at least 3 weeks, and involves only one small controlled group, swimming once per day, with one swimmer per lane. These swimmers form a training bubble, and the composition of these swimmers may not change during this Step. Swimmers should be chosen with preference given to Olympic/Paralympic targeted athletes, then senior carded athletes, etc.
It’s important to note that before every training session, each swimmer, coach and staff are required to answer questions related to symptoms, contacts and travel, that could pose increased risk. Without exception, anyone answering indicating an increased risk should be forbidden from attending that session.
While this process will not catch asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, it provides the best opportunity to facilitate training, and limits the exposure of others to those in the training bubble.
Step 1 is essentially stress testing the club’s RTS Plan, and would involve managing spacing in the pool, rotating swimmers through the lanes each practice so that outside lanes could be used for coaching feedback and various other aspects.
Swimming Canada’s Framework calls for the Assessment Group to ensure that the club is complying with all public health mandates and facility rules. Only with a determination of a successful implementation of Step 1 is the club allowed to proceed to Step 2.
I recommend that the Assessment Group should have a more forceful role, and should be responsible for providing a detailed report on Step 1 compliance for all important aspects of the club’s RTS Plan.
This step is to last at least 3 weeks, and should incorporate any lessons learned from Step 1.
Additional groups can be introduced to training, with each new group starting with Step 1 protocols.
The initial Step 1 group may add additional daily training sessions. Once the additional groups have completed their 3-weeks of Step 1 training, groups can be merged. While the graphic provided in Swimming Canada’s Framework shows 2 per lane, the verbiage isn’t limited to that number. In fact, the only limitations are related to local / public health restrictions on group size, and the ability to maintain physical distancing requirements.
Once again, I recommend that the Assessment Group should be responsible for providing a detailed report on Step 2 compliance for all important aspects of the club’s RTS Plan.
Steps 3 and 4 have not yet been developed.
Return to Competition guidelines have not yet been developed.
Clearly, the usual competition models will have to be significantly altered to handle the present sporting landscape.
Response to Positive Tests
Swimming Canada’s response to a positive test by a swimmer or coach is drastic, but necessary. All team training would be suspended, with all team members going into self-isolation for 14-days. Training may resume only when there’s been at least 14 days since the last positive test, AND team members are cleared to train by their physician.
This is also where the training bubbles come in. These bubbles limit the exposure of swimmers to anyone who may test positive. And, of course, the weak link is the coach who may be involved with multiple training bubbles.
I recognize that this is just a preliminary step towards a Return to Swimming, but there are a still a few areas where I think more guidance is needed.
- Water bottles sitting at the end of a lane are exposed to all aerosolized droplets in the air. I recommend that all water bottles must be equipped with caps that are removed before allowing the swimmer to drink.
- Backstrokers will be exhaling strongly, straight up into the air. This may have repercussions on coaches, staff and lifeguards if backstroke is performed in outside lanes
- The well-known 2-meter distancing guideline is based on normal breathing. Hard-training athletes breathe vigorously, which means a larger distancing target should be set. To make matters worse, air circulation at water surface is notoriously bad at most pools.
- Washroom use is a very tricky situation. Banning the use of washrooms by older swimmers for a one-hour practice is FAR more possible than banning washroom use for 8-10 year olds. Some clear guidance here is required.
- Should we have protocols that consider positive tests by facility staff, such as lifeguards or maintenance staff who are frequently in the pool area? What about positive tests by facility staff who do not frequent the pool area?
Further Areas of Study
We, as a swimming community, need more studies to determine the chlorine-virus relationship. How long an exposure to chlorine does it take to kill the virus? Does breathing out underwater kill any virus contained in that breath? What happens when a bubble caused by vigorous exhalation underwater hits the surface? What impact does the poor air circulation close to the water level have on virus mobility?
Swimming, like most organized sports, can rightfully claim to provide their athletes with far more than just technical skills and physical training. Additional benefits include many life skills and lessons that go far beyond sport.
One of the principal lessons that swimming can teach us right now is that some things are bigger than sport. A pandemic is clearly one of them. The economy has been put on hold, jobs lost, lives lost. As bad as it may feel, lost swimming opportunities doesn’t match up with those impacts.
This Framework for supporting Return to Swimming efforts is an important and sensible approach that puts safety first.
I strongly recommend that the Assessment Group must prepare a report at the completion of all Step 1 and Step 2 activities, that explicitly addresses how those activities fared in terms of facility and public health risk elements. In particular, this report should address any failures in maintaining physical distance requirements at any point in the training.
I’ve also pointed out some elements of the Framework that should be addressed in future versions.