First and foremost, this depends on what state and local public health experts are advising. Is your state having a downward trend of positive tests or document cases over two weeks? Is your state able to conduct robust contact tracing and surveillance testing of asymptomatic people in vulnerable populations? What is your community’s bed capacity at local hospitals given that the healthcare system is under immense pressure? Answers to those questions will go a long way in deciding whether to play now.
Pandemic fatigue is very real at the worst possible time for youth sports – entering indoor sports season (basketball, volleyball, wrestling, hockey). This is a period when we can’t let our guard down with the virus. Caseloads and hospitalizations are higher than they were even at the beginning of the fall sports season, or in March and April when all sports were cancelled.
“What that means is that the likelihood of one or more players arriving at practice or a game asymptomatically infectious is substantially greater than it was several months ago. That means we are adding one more component of elevated risk (greater community transmission) to another risk (playing contact sports indoors). It makes for a very concerning scenario in settings like youth sports, high schools and many colleges, especially since testing daily or multiple times a week is not feasible.” - Dr. Neal Gandhi, Professor of Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology and Global Health at Emory University
On Oct. 29, the CDC released updated return to play considerations that continue to advise in part that “youth sports teams should consider competing only against teams in their local area,” such as within their neighborhood, town or community. The CDC says the risk of COVID-19 spread increases in youth sports settings as follows:
- Lowest risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members
- Increasing risk: Team-based practice
- More risk: Within-team competition
- Even more risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area
- Highest risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas
The CDC advises that sports requiring frequent closeness between players “may make it more difficult to maintain social distancing. For close-contact sports (e.g., wrestling, basketball), play may be modified to safely increase distance between players.” For instance, teams could focus on individual skills, participate in full contact only in game-time situations, and decrease the number of competitions in a season. The age of the child has to be factored into what returning to sports looks like. The CDC says that older youth may be better able to follow directions for social distancing and take other protective actions, such as not sharing water bottles. The CDC adds: “For younger athletes, youth sports programs may ask parents or other household members to monitor their children and make sure that they follow social distancing and take other protective actions (e.g, younger children could sit with parents or caregivers, instead of in a dugout or group area.”
Maintaining healthy sports environments are critical. The CDC says it’s necessary to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces on the court, field or play surface at least daily, or between uses as much as possible. The CDC offers tips on how to clean and disinfect facilities and recommends using an EPA-registered household disinfectant.
The CDC says that the virus gets spread most frequently among close contacts within about six feet — a distance that is hard to create in team and some individual sports. Transmission of the virus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets and “does not spread easily” by touching surfaces or objects, according to the CDC. “It may be possible for COVID-19 to spread in other ways, but these are not thought to be the main ways the virus spreads,” the CDC says.
Youth sports organizations need policies for what happens if someone at an event or practice gets sick or tests positive later. Sauer stresses that public health authorities must be contacted when a new case is found, but many health departments are overwhelmed and have very limited capacity or success to do contact tracing. Transparency and clear communication with the public is vital. Remember, about half of all COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic.
Children appear to be less likely than adults to suffer severe complications from the coronavirus, according to the CDC, though it remains unclear whether youth with underlying conditions are at elevated risk. There’s still much that is not known about the virus. Doctors in the U.S. and Europe have called a mysterious new pediatric illness that appears linked to COVID-19 "deeply concerning." Instead of attacking the lungs like the new coronavirus disease does in adults, this syndrome, while seemingly very rare, can trigger serious and even deadly cardiac complications in kids.
"The greater concern is that youth will become a carrier for the virus and pass it on to their parents, grandparents or coaches. Several state and county public health departments around the country have linked COVID-19 outbreaks to youth sports events. I wouldn’t recommend opening youth team practices, and certainly not youth competitions with spectators, until we have demonstrated that we have the virus under control. We shouldn’t even open schools until a given area has demonstrated that cases are decreasing and hospitals can offer tests and treatment to all who need those services. Youth sports should be a lower priority than schools, because they present most of the same risks without all of the same societal benefits." - Dr. Andrew Stolbach, Emergency Physician and Faculty Member, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.