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Will Vaccinations Save This Year’s High School Sports?

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available to all school students 12 years and older, and as more people become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, some are wondering if it’s safe to go back to playing team sports. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “There is an increased risk of spreading COVID-19 while playing close-contact or indoor sports.” To decrease the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19, the agency recommends avoiding close-contact sports with people in different households, getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, playing outside, and staying at least 6 feet away from others. Yet, in Alabama, CBS 42 News reported that most high school sports resumed last fall and sports like basketball and wrestling completed full seasons with strict indoor safety protocols and many high school sports will soon be making a full return.  

As coaches and athletes return to the fields and courts this fall and winter, they will be faced with a new normal and continued risks of COVID-19 infections amid a pandemic with no end in sight. Unlike the expanding list of U.S. colleges and universities that will require all students, staff, and faculty to be vaccinated against the coronavirus this fall, that same rule will not apply to high school students. Whether a state or local government can require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law and state officials around the country have expressed little interest in adding COVID-19 vaccines to school vaccine mandates. Lawmakers are unlikely to push for a mandate until the vaccine is approved for use by all school-aged children by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Currently, all three COVID-19 vaccines are approved under an emergency use authorization (EAU) and are not fully approved by the FDA.

However, some lawmakers have already stated that the virus poses less of a risk to children than adults. In Texas and Iowa, the Governors banned schools from mandating the use of masks by students. If past experience is anything to go by, school students, and especially those participating in sports teams, are as much at risk from contracting and spreading the virus as adults are. 

In an April article, VTDigger reported that athletes fueled a March spike of COVID-19 cases in many schools. In Vermont alone, in-school transmissions skyrocketed that month with the worst outbreak largely tied to winter sports. Data showed that at least 133 people caught the virus at school or a school-related event – totaling the same number of outbreaks in a K-12 setting during the first six months of the school year combined.  

Also in March, Colorado, Michigan, Virginia, along with many other states, saw a rise in COVID-19-related cases, and many were tied to youth and high school sports. There were 21 active COVID-19 outbreaks linked with youth sports in Colorado. Youths were also associated with the highest COVID-19 cases in Michigan. Sarah Lyon-Callo, Michigan’s director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said, “The largest number of outbreaks are in K-12 school settings at 162,” and that children ages 10-19 had the highest COVID-19 case rates. In Virginia,  Reston News reported that 11 student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19 at South Lakes High in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell confirmed that 11 of the 99 student-athletes in the high school’s football program tested positive during team activities.  In the same month, WUSA9 TV also found that 21 COVID-19 cases were reported in Loudoun County high school after student-athletes tested positive. Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia are not alone. California also saw a rise in sports-related COVID-19 cases. Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, temporarily suspended some of its sports programs after seven new confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in mid-April.  

In mid-April Deadline reported that five current COVID-19 outbreaks were associated with youth sports in Los Angeles, California. LA County public health director, Barbara Ferrer, said, “We know that masking and distancing can be a challenge in some sports, and that socializing during these activities off school campus could also be a factor in virus transmission among these groups. We’re looking hard at the current guidance for youth sports and may be making additional recommendations to mitigate the increases we’re seeing in transmission among youth sport participants.” That same month, the Chicago Tribune reported that 155 students and staff in the Hinsdale High School district were in quarantine amid COVID-19 cases that were linked to sports teams.

One promising piece of news is that in late April, KDKA 2 CBS Pittsburgh local news reported that West Virginia started offering COVID-19 vaccines at high school basketball tournaments to anyone 16 and over.  Dr. Sherri Young, the department’s health officer said, “We understand that parents and teenagers are busy, so this is one way we hope to make the process more convenient for them.”

AM analysts and health experts recommend that students, parents, and coaches should follow CDC’s guidelines and evaluate the value of engaging in sports against the risk of infections. Although vaccination reduces the risk of getting COVID-19, it does not rule out the possibility of becoming infected and no activity is without risks when it comes to COVID-19. However, CDC reports that the vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19 and help protect people from getting sick or severely ill with COVID-19.  While there is still some uncertainty about the risk of COVID-19 in contact sports, one thing is clear, teens participating in sport-related activities are ready to get back to normal.  With looming concerns of the pandemic putting sports scholarships at risk for thousands of students who rely on them to help finance their education, the pandemic has disrupted the lives, routines, and training of elite athletes at every level, placing a psychological toll on many. Along with a strong push for vaccination, health experts, coaches, and sports psychologists should devise a comprehensive “playbook” to deal with the mental impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on high school athletes. 

 

AM TRACE is currently working nationwide with multiple states and public health agencies on testing, contact tracing, and vaccination programs. Counties, states, or K-12 partners that are interested in partnering with AM TRACE for COVID-19 mitigation support should contact Dr. Christopher K Orlea at c.orlea@am-trace.co

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