Olympic Swimmer’s Vaccination Status Sparks COVID-19 Safety Discussion

Robert Finke of Team United States competes in heat four of the Men's 800m Freestyle on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Michael Andrew, a U.S. Olympic swimmer, recently sparked controversy because of his vaccination status.
  • Vaccinations are not mandated among athletes, but all Olympians risk removal from games if tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Experts say the risk of contracting COVID-19 during a swimming competition is small, but worry about outside-of-pool contact and individual health risks of any unvaccinated athlete.

U.S. swimmers have already secured 12 medals since the Tokyo Olympics kicked off this Saturday. 

Despite making waves in the pool, Team USA faced a rift between vaccinated and unvaccinated athletes on social media.

The debate centers on Michael Andrew, a 22-year-old Californian and gold medal favorite in the 200-meter individual medley. Andrew chose not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as he was unsure how his body would react to the shot. 

“As an athlete on the elite level, everything we do is very calculated,” he told reporters during a conference call. “I didn’t want to risk any days out, because there are periods where, if you take the vaccine, you have to deal with some days off.”

But some swimmers are less convinced. Maya DiRado, a retired Olympic swimmer and former gold medalist, took to Twitter to express her disappointment in Andrew’s decision. She referenced Bible verses and how she values keeping her teammates safe in a Twitter thread.

“Michael does have the right to do anything - but not everything is beneficial,” DiRado wrote.

Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin replied to the thread, pointing to Andrew’s potential “natural immunity” to COVID-19 and suggesting that some of Andrew’s quotes about the decision had been taken out of context by Fox News.

Olympians are not required to be vaccinated for the games. However, they are required to complete daily COVID-19 testing and risk losing chances to compete if they test positive for the virus.

Andrew, who qualified for a total of five individual events — the 50 meter Freestyle, 100 meter Backstroke, 100 meter Breastroke, 100 meter Butterfly, and 200 IM —  is the only U.S. swimmer to have publicly said he is unvaccinated.

Experts say that any unvaccinated individual is at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than someone who received the vaccination. But with Tokyo’s safety protocols in place and the inability to transmit COVID-19 through chlorinated water, some suggest that an athlete like Andrew may be more of a danger to himself than to his competitors. 

Can Athletes Get COVID-19 During a Swimming Competition?

There is no known evidence that COVID-19 is transmissible through the water in pools, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Disinfectants like chlorine can remove germs and viruses effectively. 

“Pools themselves are very clean and they're going to render the viruses inactive,” Benjamin Caplan, MD, founder and chief medical officer of CED Clinic and CED Foundation, tells Verywell. “The issue in terms of viral transmission is not the pool itself, but the rails, the steps, the things that people touch which are not bathed in bleach or chlorine.”

Caplan is a former D3 swimmer and trained with Olympic athletes throughout his childhood. His own experience influenced his decision to investigate virus transmission among swimmers, he says.

Andrew’s races are all less than two minutes long—he finished fourth place in the 100 Breastroke finals with a time of 58.84 seconds on Monday—and each lane in the Olympic swimming pool is about 8 feet wide. The CDC says a person needs to be within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes to contract the virus. The agency now encourages outdoor activities, like swimming in pools, for unvaccinated individuals.

Ravi Starzl, PhD, CEO of BioPlx, an advanced microbiomics company developing non-antibiotic methods for the control of infectious disease, says that COVID-19 risks intensify when athletes mingle outside of the pool, especially when protection measures like “bubbling” are not adequately followed.

“For sporting events, there's a great emphasis on ‘bubbling,’ where you have a vetted, approved group of people and it's very hard to penetrate that boundary and have interactions outside that boundary.” Starzl tells Verywell. “The problem with bubbles is that they do break down.”

Transmission risks increase further with the Delta variant, which contains a higher viral load, he adds. 

Jeannette Young, chief health officer of Queensland, Australia, said that the Delta variant looks like it could be transmitted within five to 10 seconds.

What Happens if an Olympian Tests Positive for COVID-19?

Athletes who test positive for COVID-19 are transported to a clinic for a second, confirmatory test via a nasal swab, according to Time. Initial tests, which are conducted daily, are spit tests.

If confirmed positive by the second test, the athlete is then transported to a designated quarantine site: a hotel outside of the Olympic village. People who came into close contact with the athlete for over 15 minutes without masks will be notified of a potential exposure and will also be tested. From there, an advisory group will determine if those who tested positive may continue to compete in the games.

The Delta variant could complicate contact-tracing methods for infected athletes. Depending on how many events the person had previously competed in, they could have passed the virus to multiple athletes from multiple countries, Starzl says.

“If every team that is in a bubble played every other team within a two-week span, and one of those teams had an infection event, every team now is at risk,” he adds. “The whole bubble paradigm is, for a moment, thrown into questioning.”

More than a dozen Olympic athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. Athletes testing positive are required to follow a 10-day quarantine.

Navigating Uncharted Waters at the Tokyo Olympics

Safety precautions like vaccinations are common in the global sports arena, says Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL, co-chair of medical affairs for the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute who served as a chief medical officer at former Olympic and Paralympic games. 

With any location or infection, medical officers need to educate athletes on health risks and equip them with the tools to stay safe, Mandelbaum says. 

“Especially in a sport that's global, we’re always dealing with global infectious disease,” Mandelbaum tells Verywell. “Part of our overall medical approach is understanding the environment, understanding that contemporary infectious diseases that athletes have potential to be exposed to, and how do we minimize those risks? What's the risk strategy?”

Mandelbaum has managed multiple infections at large sporting events. As the medical officer for the 2016 Rio Olympics, he strategized how to deal with Zika. In the men's World Cup qualifiers in 2009, the issue was H1N1. For the 2003 women’s world cup, he oversaw SARS prevention when the venue was changed from China to the United States.

While he says the specific containment and prevention strategies were very different from the current pandemic, the protocols to ensure access and protection are always necessary.

“There's not much overlap in a sense of the specificity of the disease processes, except the fact that we're in a high level of vigilance and diligence with respect to making sure that we are manifesting programs that understand these complexities,” Mandelbaum says.

Looking at the Tokyo Olympics, there is no reason why an athlete shouldn’t get vaccinated, he says. He notes that contracting COVID-19 can impact overall health and athletic performance—which, for many Olympians, is their life’s work.

“The scary thing about COVID is that it affects the heart and the lungs,” Mandelbaum says. "From an athlete performance perspective, we certainly want to prevent any decrement in performance that we could potentially be subjected to.”

When talking to athletes about the importance of vaccinations, he tries to speak to them from a place of understanding by outlining why the precautions are in place and what the consequences could be. 

Overall, he applauds the Olympic athletes’ dedication to following protocols and staying safe. The majority of athletes who are following safety protocols don’t always get enough credit, he adds.

“Those athletes in Tokyo, every one of them are getting off the plane, putting swabs in their nose every day, sometimes twice a day,” Mandelbaum says.  “We don't want to lose that part of the story.”

What This Means For You

Disinfectants like chlorine can kill the COVID-19 virus. If you’re in a swimming pool, you’re unlikely to catch the virus. Still, experts say to be wary about contact with people and objects outside of the pool.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for Public Pools, Hot Tubs, and Water Playgrounds During COVID-19.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Guidelines for Community-Related Exposure.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.