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‘Completely different ball game’: the debate over youth sports and Covid

Earlier this month, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, urged schools and clubs to abandon their youth sports events as the US Midwestern state grappled with another surge in Covid cases. 

The next day, hundreds of children, parents and coaches converged on the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo for the annual Michigan Youth Wrestling Association championships, where maskless competitors grappled, threw and pinned each other over three days of competition.

Those involved in youth wrestling say they could not have envisaged cancelling the host of competitions that mark the end of the state wrestling season. But health experts warn that events such as this have helped to drive a wave of infections that has left hospitals once more at a breaking point.

Rick Sadler, assistant professor at the department of public health at Michigan State University, said: “Whitmer put out a request for people to give up youth sports and people did not take it seriously. People think these are kids and are not transmitting it, but the B.1.1.7 strain [which is now dominant in the US] is a completely different ball game. 

“We are close to the worst peak Michigan has ever had, but this time it is young people who are populating our emergency departments.”

[My son] missed school, he missed homecoming — missing sports too would have put the nail in the coffin

The battle over youth sports is just one aspect of a wider push by politicians and health officials to encourage Americans to remain cautious even as the US vaccine rollout continues at a rapid pace. Public health experts are concerned the success of the vaccination programme may have made people overly confident about their chances of avoiding the virus, leading to a sudden spike in certain parts of the country.

Michigan has been at the centre of the latest US wave, with the seven-day average of new cases having recently approached their record high of about 8,000 a day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are now roughly 4,000 people in hospital with the disease across the state — more than at any time during the pandemic. Deaths have also started to rise.

Health officials have blamed the spike on a range of factors, but high on the list has been the state’s competitive youth sports scene.

The state health department has identified at least 291 clusters associated with youth sports since January, involving 1,091 cases. Indoor sports seem to cause the biggest problems, with 106 clusters coming from basketball, 62 from wrestling and 51 from ice hockey.

Wrestling is considered especially high risk — the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against mask wearing during the sport because of the risk that competitors could choke on them. 

In December a high school wrestling tournament in Florida was the source of a Covid-19 outbreak responsible for at least 79 cases and one death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nevertheless, recent competitions have been well-attended, say participants. Parents and coaches said they felt reassured by the rigorous testing requirements that demand any wrestler test negative for Covid within 72 hours of competing.

Ice hockey was associated with 51 Covid cases in Michigan since January, the state health department said © Adam Glanzman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“We haven’t had anybody that tested positive or was exposed,” said Pete Israel, a wrestling coach at Salem High School. “If all these guys are in such close contact and aren’t getting it, is it really an issue?”

Israel’s comments reflect the opinion of many of those involved in youth sports around the country. 

A recent poll by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University found that while 66 per cent of high school students said they were concerned they could catch or transmit Covid through sports participation, 84 per cent said they were at least as interested in playing as they had been before the pandemic.

“In the US the youth club sports scene came back pretty quickly — a year ago in many places,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director at the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. 

Unlike in much of Europe, youth sports play a major role developing professional talent in the US, where athletes are often snapped up at a young age by professional teams.

“This is a highly commercialised industry — people will travel across the country to go to the next big event where they can be seen by the college scout,” Solomon said. “There are families that will spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to get their child into college sports.”

Some schools have allowed athletes to remain in virtual learning to minimise their risk of picking up Covid and not being allowed to compete. Others have their teams eat lunch separately from other students.

And many parents and coaches are angry about the suggestion that the virus is spreading through competitions. They suggest that social events associated with team sports might play a larger role. 

“I don’t know of a single case where Covid came from playing sport itself,” said Holly Locke, an office manager at Canton Soccer Club in Canton, Michigan, and parent to two high-school athletes. “It has either come from parents where they contracted it from a friend or got it outside of school and they just happen to be athletes.”

Locke added: “We went to Florida for my son’s senior spring break, with other school athletes. Quite a few kids contracted Covid down there — my son stayed apart from the parties, but many of the kids were all hanging out together and got sick.”

Despite this, Locke says she remains committed to her children remaining involved with their football and basketball teams.

“I have not for a minute considered whether it’s worth it,” she said. “This was all my son had been looking forward to for three years in high school — playing soccer and basketball in senior year. 

“He missed school, he missed homecoming — missing sports too would have put the nail in the coffin.”

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2021-04-24 11:00:05

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