Despite Bacteria Scare, Local Waters Generally Safe For Swimming

Despite Bacteria Scare, Local Waters Generally Safe For Swimming
Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — Despite a handful of regional and national incidents of Vibrio bacteria infections, the chances of contracting the so-called “flesh-eating virus” locally remains remote although some common-sense safety tips should be observed.

With documented cases of Vibrio being reported seemingly daily up and down the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico including one reported incident in the Delaware Bay, there does not appear to be a spike in the presence of the bacteria locally in the coastal bays and its tributaries. Nonetheless, certain strands of Vibrio are likely present in local waters where people tend to swim and recreate and a few common-sense measures can help insulate residents and visitors from contracting the illness associated with the bacteria.

According to the Worcester County Health Department, Vibrios are bacteria that occur naturally in estuarine and marine waters and belong to the same family of bacteria that causes cholera. However, there are over 80 species of Vibrio bacteria and only a handful are known to cause infection when people are exposed by open wounds, cuts or scratches while swimming, wading, crabbing or fishing. In short, not all strains of Vibrios cause human illness.

Nonetheless, with a handful of cases of Vibrio infections in coastal communities around the country being reported in the last week or so, the hyperbole over the so-called “flesh-eating virus” has reached a crescendo. Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips, who conducts water tests all over coastal bays watersheds each week, said current conditions are conducive to spikes in Vibrio and other known bacteria in local waters.

“The bacteria are free-living inhabitants of marine coastal waters and brackish waterways,” she said. “Water surface temperatures and salinity affect concentrations of most Vibrio species. We currently have high water temperatures and high salinity here in our coastal bays.”

However, Phillips urged residents and visitors to resist the hype and continue to enjoy the local waterways while taking some common-sense precautions.

“Don’t panic, but if you are in or on the water in the back bays, take precautions,” she said. “Enjoy the water, but be careful and smart.

The Worcester County Health Department offered similar advice on how to continue to enjoy the local waterways and all of the recreational opportunities they offer while protecting one’s self from contracting a bacteria-related illness. Short of staying out of the water altogether, there are always inherent risks associated with swimming in natural waterways, but that doesn’t mean the activities should be avoided over fear of the bacteria.

“The only way to prevent infection is to avoid contact with the water,” the statement reads. “However, the incidence of infection from swimming and other recreational activities in Maryland is relatively rare.”

Both the Coastkeeper and the county health department offer similar advice to avoid contracting Vibrio-related illness or other illnesses carried by bacteria in the water. For example, if one has a compromised immune system either from medication or a health issue, avoid swimming in the back bays and their tributaries. Don’t swim or recreate in the bays with open cuts or sores, or at the very least, cover them with waterproof bandages.

Take a hot, soapy shower after swimming in the back bays and clean equipment and avoid cutting one’s self while hauling equipment out of the water. If one suffers a cut or scrape while on the water, clean the site immediately and apply an antibacterial lotion or cream to the wound. Keep a close eye on it and if it reddens or swells, get it checked out immediately.

For the last eight years or so, the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Assateague Coastkeeper has been offering the Swim Guide program, which monitors water conditions and bacteria levels in area waterways to keep the public informed of the health conditions in the bay. The Swim Guide is a smart phone app that allows people to find safe beaches and back bay areas in which to recreate and enjoy their waterways in one easy place.

ACT and the Coastkeeper also post weekly bacteria counts, water temperatures and salinity levels from various testing locations all over the coastal bays and posts them on their website. In addition, Worcester County conducts its own water-testing at sites all over the coastal bays and provides that information on it website.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the acceptable bacteria level standards for heavily-used beaches and waterways at 104 colonies of bacteria or less per 100 milliliters of water. In less-frequented swimming areas, the EPA standard is 158 colonies or less per 100 milliliters of water.

It’s important to note the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Coastkeeper take weekly samples all summer long for the presence of the Enterococci bacteria, but not for the Vibrio bacteria. However, because the different bacteria thrive under similar conditions, ACT’s weekly Enterococci tests can be a fairly reliable indicator of the presence of Vibrios.

“We test for Enterococci bacteria weekly, but not for Vibrio,” she said. “However, if our Swim Guide posts show high levels of Enterococci, then other bacteria can be flourishing too.”

ACT and the Coastkeeper test bacteria levels and 10 different locations each week in and around the coastal bays and their tributaries. The most recent tests from last week indicate the level of Enterococci bacteria in six of the testing sites is well below the EPA’s 100 standard. For example, samples taken last week at the testing site in the bay at 71st Street revealed a score of just 24. Similarly, the test taken near Horn Island just north of the Route 50 Bridge revealed a score of just 52. However, in some locations the tests revealed bacteria levels far exceeding the EPA standard. For example, samples taken in upper Manklin Creek revealed a level of over 529, while a sample taken in Turville Creek revealed a level of 487.

It’s important to note those results reflect testing for the Enterococci bacteria. It’s also important to note the tests reflect bacteria levels on the given day and that bacteria levels can change rapidly as water conditions change. For example, stormwater runoff after a significant rain event can dramatically sway bacteria levels although they also dissipate almost as quickly as they rise.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.