As COVID cases continue to rise in areas across the U.S., officials are tracing outbreaks to a number of different events. Recently, a handful of states have sounded the alarm on COVID clusters tied to an activity that many of us might consider to be relatively innocuous. In regions that span the entire country, states are seeing a spike in COVID cases linked to high school and middle school sports.
In a Sept. 8 statement, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) said it recently saw a "sharp increase" in COVID clusters among school sports teams. "For the period between July 1 and Sept. 2, 2021, clusters among school sports teams accounted for 45 percent of all clusters in North Carolina middle and high schools, despite most school sports activities not beginning until August," the statement read. The NCDHHS said it saw 42 athletics-related clusters, which led to at least 340 cases.
And these outbreaks are not limited to North Carolina. On Sept. 9, Ohio's Tribune Chronicle announced that at least three high school football games in the state set for the upcoming weekend had been canceled or altered due to COVID cases. Kraig Hissong, the superintendent of West Liberty-Salem Local School in Salem, Ohio, wrote in a Facebook post that 33 percent of the football team is currently out of school to prevent further spread after the discovery of three positive cases. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, both East Stroudsburg North and East Stroudsburg South football games were postponed as of Sept. 8 due to COVID, The Morning Call reported.
There are measures in place to mitigate the spread of COVID from these games. In California, athletes in quarantine due to contact with positive COVID cases are unable to participate in football games. "Some of our athletes have been close contacts to positive cases at school, which has impacted their participation in sports while in quarantine," Marie Russell, chief communication coordinator at Turlock Unified School District (TUSD), told the Turlock Journal on Sept. 1. That week, TUSD reported 79 confirmed COVID cases and 886 individuals who were considered close contact.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have both noted that sports can increase the spread of COVID among students, especially if they're unvaccinated. The CDC recommends that youth limit their participation in sports, particularly if the sport involves close contact or takes place indoors. The agency shared detailed guidelines that should be followed if youth do engage in sports. Some recommendations include masking when possible, maintaining good hand hygiene, avoiding sharing items, and keeping distance as much as possible.
The AAP notes that indoor sports present a much higher risk of spreading COVID. "Studies from outdoor contact sports, such as football and rugby, confirm low transmission risk from on-field activities," the AAP says. The organization also says that most transmission linked to outdoor sports occurred during off-field activities, such as sharing meals or sharing transportation while unmasked. Regardless, COVID "infection rates for outdoor sports are likely to reflect local community infection rates."
On Aug. 3, a long list of sports and medical associations signed a statement encouraging all young athletes eligible for the shot to get vaccinated. "We, the undersigned organizations, believe all athletes who do not have contraindications should be vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they are eligible," the statement reads. "Vaccination prevents widespread disease, hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID-19 and will help keep students in the classroom, athletes in the game, and athletic teams on the field while protecting our communities." The AAP, American College of Sports Medicine, National Federation of State High School Associations, National College Athletic Association, and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee are just some of the organizations that signed the statement.