When is it safe to use a communal mikvah?

covid coronavirus mikvah safety

We are living in an era of a viral pandemic. COVID-19.  People who run mikvaot are taking great care to make sure that the water and facilities are safe.  Many Jewish organizations are saying that it is safe to immerse there. But health questions still remain. On the advice of doctors, rabbis, or both, some people are choosing not to go to the mikvah at all.

So we must ask: are all mikvaot unsafe? I don’t think so – yet we should understand that there are different conditions in a frequently used communal mikvah – for instance, one in New York City – and a less frequently used mikvah out in a suburb.

It is not the water in the mikveh, or the surfaces in the facility, that is the problem. It is the fact that we now know that covid-19 is an airborne transmissible disease.

Going to a mikveh in a suburb might be just fine. They have a small number of people per day, now with open windows and good ventilation. But going to a well attended mikveh in New York City could be quite different. What matters is the number of people that attend per day, and the number of viral particles they exhale which stay in the air for several hours.

The JOWMA (Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association) has issued a helpful document, Guidance for communities and women regarding mikvah use during the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides guidance to communities about how to provide a safe mikvah experience, and to individual women about how to best maintain safety while utilizing the mikvah.

But for a mikvah in dense cities, it is the high number of airborne viral particles that are the problem. It is not just sneezing or coughing that is a problem. Just speaking loudly sends out many particles into the air. If someone sneezes, each droplet could hold thousands of viral particles.

viral-airborne-transmission-routes-droplets
Image from Airborne spread of infectious agents in the indoor environment, by Jianjian Wei & Yuguo Li

True, most droplets are short range. But small particles float in the air longer – and then they dehydrate (lose water molecules.) That leaves an even tinier, lighter particle. Some call these droplet nuclei, or an aerosol, or a bioaerosol.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has given a boost to an unsettling idea: that the novel coronavirus can spread through the air—not just through the large droplets emitted in a cough or sneeze. Though current studies aren’t conclusive, “the results of available studies are consistent with aerosolization of virus from normal breathing,” researchers reported earlier this year in The New England Journal of Medicine that SARS-CoV-2 can float in aerosol droplets—less than 5 microns across—for up to 3 hours, and remain infectious.

You may be able to spread coronavirus just by breathing, new report finds, Science, AAAS, Robert F. Service, 4/2/2020

As such, decisions on whether to use a communal mikvah should be made with one’s doctor as well as one’s local rabbi.

Mikvah alternatives during an emergency situation

Also see Flight of the aerosol, Ian M Mackay et al. Virology Down Under, 2/9/2020

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