Summer health hazards during COVID-19

By John Murphy
Published June 16, 2020

Key Takeaways

Hot summer weather won’t slow down COVID-19 infection rates. According to researchers, latitude and temperature have no effect, and humidity has only a small effect, on dampening transmission of the coronavirus. 

“Summer is not going to make this go away. It’s important people know that,” said study co-author and epidemiologist Dionne Gesink, PhD, professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. 

“On the other hand, the more public health interventions an area had in place, the bigger the impact on slowing the epidemic growth,” she added. “These public health interventions are really important because they’re the only thing working right now to slow the epidemic.”

In other words, this summer will challenge us with its usual hazards of sunburns, bee stings, Lyme disease, and poison ivy—plus the additional challenge of social distancing and avoiding airborne infections. 

Hiking amid ticks and crowds

Even though state and national parks are only now reopening to outdoor enthusiasts, crowds of people have been hitting the hiking trails since the beginning of the spring. Thanks to stay-at-home orders, more Americans have had the “outdoors” bug that has them venturing outside and on the move, especially on their local hiking trails. 

Hiking is good for heart health, but it can also pose a greater risk for Lyme disease and other vector-borne illnesses from disease-carrying ticks. According to the National Pest Management Association, warm and wet weather this spring has triggered insect populations to spike early, which will enable them to thrive throughout summer across most of the United States, but particularly in the Northeast, Great Lakes, South Central, and Northwest regions. 

Ticks not only transmit Lyme disease—the most common vector-borne infection in the United States—but also many other infections, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis, as well as the rare but deadly Powassan virus

‘Bee’ prepared

Another danger of spending more time playing or hiking outdoors: bees. While stings from bees and other insects cause temporary pain and swelling in most people, they can trigger an allergic reaction that causes potentially deadly anaphylaxis in 3% of adults and about 1% of children. 

The anaphylactic reaction usually occurs within 10 to 30 minutes of the sting. However, getting multiple stings at once, or getting stung repeatedly during the same summer may further raise the chance of a systemic reaction. 

Other than avoiding bees altogether (always a good idea), the solution to bee sting anaphylaxis is venom immunotherapy. Most people who are treated with venom immunotherapy for at least 5 years develop a long-term tolerance to bee stings. 

Sunburns on busy beaches

As national parks are re-opening, so too are the nation’s beaches—and sun-worshippers are flocking to them in droves. Many aren’t wearing masks, and social distancing can be a problem with such crowded conditions. Given that precautions against COVID-19 seem to be top-of-mind for most, it begs the question: Will beachgoers forget to protect their skin? 

Sunburn is a hazard that lasts long after summer is over. Not only does it accelerate skin aging, but it also is a leading cause in the majority of cases of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Skin damage starts with the very first sunburn. Even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles the chances of developing melanoma later in life. And, the more you burn (even without obvious burn signs), the greater your risk. In fact, a history of five or more blistering sunburns before age 20 can increase an individual’s risk of developing melanoma by 80%.

Every year, Americans are warned to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Despite this, melanoma rates have been rising rapidly in the past few decades. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises all individuals to use broad-spectrum sunscreen every day with an SPF of 15 or higher. For extended time outdoors, it’s recommended to use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. It’s also advised to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating.

Food poisoning during a pandemic

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, poisoning? It’s a fact of life that foodborne illnesses are at their highest in the summer, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are two reasons for this: bacterial growth accelerates in warmer, more humid temperatures, and preparing food outdoors makes handling food safely more challenging.

The USDA offers four recommendations to lower the chances of food poisoning in the summer months: 

  • Keep raw meats, poultry, and fish separate from other food, and never place cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw food. 

  • Cook meat and poultry completely—to recommended safe internal temperatures—at the picnic site. (Partially cooking food ahead of time allows bacteria to survive and multiply to the point that later cooking will not destroy them.)

  • Keep cold food well chilled in a cooler until it’s time to eat. Don’t leave food out after eating—food shouldn’t be left out for more than 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F, and not more than 2 hours in cooler temperatures. 

  • Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly and often. Hopefully, that’s a practice that the pandemic has impressed on us all. 

A decrease in water-borne diseases?

There’s nothing cooler than taking a dip in the pool on a hot summer day. But, summer this year won’t be too cool thanks to COVID-19. Many public pools—those in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for instance—haven’t re-opened yet and may stay closed all summer, with many private pools and water parks across the country following suit.

Interestingly, the CDC states that there’s no evidence that coronavirus can be spread through the water in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds. If pools and other aquatic venues are properly disinfected with chlorine, the virus should be inactivated. Although viral spread is possible through contaminated surfaces, researchers believe that this is not the primary mode of transmission and, therefore, poses little risk. The problem, however, is other people. In public swimming areas, masks are usually an unrealistic expectation, making social distancing even more necessary to prevent airborne spread of the virus. In fact, if there’s a breeze, it’s best to stay farther than the regularly recommended 6 feet, even while in a pool or on the beach. 

There is an upside, though, to the many public and private pool and waterpark closures this year. These closures may mean fewer cases of Cryptosporidium, the leading cause of water-borne diseases in the United States. This microscopic parasite lives in water infected with feces, even surviving in chlorinated pool water. How? Crypto has a protective outer shell that makes it very tolerant to chlorine disinfection. 

A happy COVID summer?

All in all, summer is always a time of both pleasures (ice cream!) and perils (skinned knees). This summer will likely be no different—except that the dangers and delights may be unlike those that we’re ordinarily accustomed to.

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