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Climbing Wall use during the COVID-19 Pandemic - It's Time to Reconsider

© Nick Brown

Last week we published an article The Climbing Bug - Indoor Walls and Coronavirus which had advice and information about how to deal with the current coronavirus pandemic. The thread accompanying the piece had a lengthy contribution from Levi Yant, who raised some serious concerns about it in the context of this fast-moving situation.

We contacted a few climbing wall owners to see what their thoughts were. They described measures they were taking to reduce the dangers and also other more drastic steps they might make, such as limiting user numbers, but all also agreed that the situation may soon be taken out of their control. We also contacted Dave Turnbull of the BMC and he said they were leaving it to the individual walls to decide for themselves. The Climbing Academy announced today that all of their centres will close from tomorrow (17 March).

Today - Monday (16 March) - the press conference by the prime minister has advised people to avoid public gathering places like pubs, restaurants, and cafes. No specific mention of leisure facilities was made. Numerous climbing walls across the globe - and some crags in Spain - have closed over the past week, either due to government orders or out of a personal desire to contain and minimise the spread of Covid-19.

Levi Yant has sent us a new piece which is up to date as of Monday 16th. Although much of our previous article remains relevant, the situation has moved on.

This is an opinion piece and we feel that it is up to everyone to make their own decisions in this extremely worrying time.

Alan James

Following recent advice from the UK government and health officials that the public should be practising social distancing, the continued use of climbing walls as a leisure facility is increasingly putting lives at risk, argues Levi Yant, M.Sc. (Virology), PhD (Genetics) Associate Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Nottingham's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Should you go to the wall if you're healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic? NOT A CHANCE.

This is going to hurt. But listen. And I'm not happy about it: I'm a devoted climber and supporter of climbing businesses and organisations. I'm also a professor with a postgraduate degree in virology and I spent over a decade working and publishing in the field of viral epidemiology and vaccine development. From this perspective, the answer is deadly clear: you are putting lives at risk if you climb at the wall at this point in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sounds alarmist, right? Well, it's time to ring the alarm, and ring it loud.

The situation has been fast-moving, so it's fair that public awareness is only catching up. But epidemiologists have been raising alarms for weeks. And related to climbing, there's new evidence that Covid-19 virus particles are infective for days on plastic surfaces from the US National Institutes of Health and Princeton University. This study also shows that infective Covid-19 virus can passed in aerosols (i.e., by a cough/sneeze/power scream). So, forget about unclean holds; this work shows that airborne transmission is likely. Hence the all the facemasks in countries that this has already hit. To the broader scientific community, current UK government advice of washing your hands and not touching your face is not sufficient. The outcome is the stuff of horror stories, and cases are increasing steadily (doubling in number every 3-4 days). Slow action by any particular government does not excuse lack of personal responsibility in the face of a medical crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Sure, we can make our own decisions regarding our personal health, but we damn well better think of our families and the public, too. Climbers are generally healthy and are therefore perfect carriers of this highly contagious and deadly disease. So, no, this one isn't even about us. It's relatively healthy carriers - because they remain active and mobile - who pose the greatest danger to others, by spreading viruses like Covid-19. This danger is magnified in Covid-19 because the virus is so transmissible both early on, before symptoms, as well as following any (even minor) symptoms.

Slow action by any particular government does not excuse lack of personal responsibility in the face of a medical crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Tragically, if you don't see it now, it will become clearer – and soon. In fact, a week ago I wasn't alarmed, despite my longstanding interest in viral epidemiology. I would have said, yeah, of course, go the wall. But the spread of Covid-19 has progressed exponentially (doubling in number every 3-4 days, with each doubling bigger than the previous) since then. And exponential growth is not something we evolved to understand. Like distances between stars, exponential growth doesn't hit the limbic system like the vision of a lion running right at you. But that's what Covid-19 is doing, right now. This has been conveniently previewed for the UK in Italy, where Covid-19 hit a couple weeks earlier. Right now, the UK Covid-19 increase in case rates are increasing at the same rate, but only two weeks behind Italy's. Italy has instituted much stronger restrictions than the UK government is (yet) instituting, and they are still experiencing rises in cases, which means many unnecessary deaths. Without dramatic action (total shutdown), all estimates are that it will be worse here.

And yes, you should be scared: A brand new modelling study by a leading group at Harvard shows that even using the most conservative assumptions, the current 4,100 ICU beds in the UK will *not come remotely close* to accommodating the upcoming sick and dying here. Worse, ¾ of those beds are occupied with ICU cases now. It's highly doubtful that the UK can ramp up ventilator production fast enough, and even if it does, do you want to contribute negatively to this? Just to pull on some plastic? Climb outside, for God's sake! Or anywhere there are fewer people around to reduce the likelihood of virus transmission. We need to slow this thing down! I know this isn't convenient, or even doable for some of us, but given the consequences it's way more responsible to take a step back from anywhere the virus is more likely to be.

So what can you do? Reduce exposure to crowds now, as well as you can. Climb outside. Go somewhere beautiful and remote. Whatever you do, flatten the curve of new infections, and for those of us who find it difficult or impossible to isolate due to work or family obligations, check out this cool description of how every little bit of social reduction helps. I implore you all, if you don't believe me, to put off your wall visit by a few days and it will be increasingly clear that it's the right thing to do by the spread of this pandemic. By all reasonable projections Covid-19 will kill many, many more people in the UK if unchecked, including people you know and love - as well as members of your local wall. I don't want to have to tell you this, but I must. Take care of yourself, your loved ones and our society: don't congregate in climbing walls, or anywhere. Do your part to help slow the peak of infections down.

Best wishes, everyone, and take care.

Levi Yant, M.Sc. (Virology), PhD (Genetics)

Associate Professor of Evolutionary Genomics
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
University of Nottingham

UPDATE: 17 March - The situation is developing so rapidly that the idea of going outdoors is quite fraught. With Italy and Spain (I am afraid quite sensibly) forbidding recreational cycling (any ICU bed taken as a result of outcomes of elective activities would be tragic), I can see this apply also to climbing, unfortunately.

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16 Mar

Not sure I agree with encouraging people to climb outside. Although i would love to myself, this just doesn't seem right? The article suggests it as a means to keep social distance, but if we all have the same idea the crags will be packed.

16 Mar

Well said!

16 Mar

Less likelihood of touching the same holds as others, less likely to be within the 2m radius of others, colder environment kills virus easier, holds washed by rain regularly, there are clear positives.

16 Mar

Interested in Levi's take on schools staying open? Children are also perfect carriers and schools are perfect places for viruses to be spread around.

16 Mar

The colder enironment preserves the virus. It's not a living thing so you can't freeze it to death; cold preserves it. Heat denatures the protein shell of the virus and UV destroys it.

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