EAU CLAIRE — The debate in the Chippewa Valley over the wisdom of conducting youth and school sports during the COVID-19 pandemic is being repeated across the country.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, Mayo Clinic pediatrician and pediatric sports medicine specialist David Soma said Tuesday during a Zoom call with reporters.
Making the best decision, Soma said, depends on a number of factors, including the degree of risk in the sport, the level of COVID-19 spread in a community, the presence of high-risk family members in an athlete’s home and the importance of sports participation to a child’s physical, mental and social well-being.
Just because he is a doctor and understands the potential risks of COVID-19 doesn’t mean he believes allowing kids to play sports during the pandemic is a bad idea, as Soma acknowledged he is allowing his own children to participate in athletics and even spent time over the summer coaching a youth baseball team.
“Sports provide immense benefits for our youth, both physically and emotionally, and when we’re playing sports there’s obviously risk of spread of this disease, so when we’re trying to decide how to allow youth to participate in sports we have to weigh the risks versus the benefit of that return and that’s ultimately the million-dollar question,” Soma said.
Sports that easily can allow for social distancing and limited shared equipment are considered low risk for transmission of the virus, while sports that require extended close contact among athletes and shared equipment are deemed higher risk.
Soma listed golf, tennis, cross country and track and field as low-risk sports, while labeling football, wrestling, hockey and basketball as high-risk sports. He mentioned baseball as carrying a moderate risk because it calls for some sharing of equipment and intermittent close contact with other athletes.
Following are edited and condensed answers Soma provided to other questions about youth sports during the pandemic:
For schools and families that permit athletes to return to sports, what steps can reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus?
The obvious ones that get a lot of attention are social distancing (maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between participants), utilization of mask as much as possible as that has been shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and then the hand hygiene and wiping down of equipment so making sure the surfaces we are touching are as clean and safe as possible.
We know that when looking at certain sports there are additional rules we may want to consider, for example in baseball don’t spit the seeds or in many other sports avoiding some of the high-fives, knuckles or fist bumps. Those are potential passages of spread and also to do those things you’re getting less than 6 feet apart. So a lot of those potential safety precautions and some slight modifications of rules can improve the safety of youth sports across the country.
How should individual families decide if it’s safe for their child to return to sports?
There are numerous considerations: Does your child or any close contact of that child have any high-risk conditions. There are several of those, but a few to name are obesity, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, immunocompromised, sickle cell disease.
In addition to that, you need to look at what are the benefits of your child playing. If your child’s identity and well-being are really benefited by playing sports, you may be willing to take on some additional risk as compared to others.
How would you determine if sports are so important to a child that it’s worth the risk?
Fortunately, children are much more mildly affected than adults, but remember that children do have to go home and be around other people. If they’re going to be around individuals that may be high risk, we need to be mindful of that. It’s not just the child themselves participating ... it’s who do they go home to or who are they going to be in contact with that they could spread it to if they do contract the virus.
When you are determining for your own child whether it’s worthwhile for them to do sports, it really has to be a discussion as a family to determine what are the alternatives. Are there ways for that child to maintain social connectedness and maintain physical activity that would be nearly or equally as satisfying as sports if you’re concerned about it? Or if you think that there is a significant benefit because they do struggle socially, physically or emotionally without the participation in sports, then it may be worth the consideration.
I generally am supportive of youth participating in sports if it can be done with low local disease activity, there’s no significant underlying health conditions and the sporting environment in which they’re playing has done a really nice job of trying to minimize the spread.
Despite safety protocols, do you expect significant outbreaks associated with youth and school sports?
I think that it’s going to be a really interesting observation this fall. We have resumption of school ... and that in combination with the resumption of sports is going to result in an increased number of children in contact with one another ... which potentially could result in increased spread.
However, this is not just as simple as if there’s more spread, we shouldn’t do these things.
Even if we stop sports, many of these kids are going to electively choose, because they identify themselves with sports, by continuing to participate, which could be at a local playground or other areas. So doing it under supervision can sometimes be better than doing it unsupervised.
What kind of screening should accompany the return to youth sports?
When we talk about screening, that is looking for the potential of someone having manifestations or exposure to COVID-19. At the very minimum, it would asking questions: Do you have a fever? Do you have signs of shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches or other signs of symptoms consistent with COVID-19? Also, have you been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?
If temperature checks are possible, that can also be beneficial. Either or both are great things to do.
What happens if athletes get COVID-19 and want to return to sports?
There needs to special consideration for those that do have COVID-19 and want to return back into sports, that we make sure we do it very carefully, likely recommending they do not return to sports until about 10 to 14 days after the onset of their symptoms, they should be fever-free and they should do it very slowly.
If they have moderate or severe disease or they have underlying health conditions, then they should likely be evaluated by their primary care provider or some specialist like a cardiologist.