Lancaster County’s rate of new COVID-19 cases was down in July about 15% from June; hospitalizations were running “at about half the levels” they were in June; and the number of deaths was about a third lower, according to an LNP | LancasterOnline analysis of state and county data. Despite that promising news, concern remains about the impact of opening schools later this month and about playing interscholastic athletics. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Reinhart wrote in last Sunday’s edition, “Local sports are coming back for the first time since mid-March, when events at every level came to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 outbreak spread through the United States. But for many athletes and many leagues the question remains: Will it last?”
Perhaps the better question to ask is this: Should it last?
Should high school student-athletes play in a pandemic? Is it safe? Is it wise?
We enjoy, as much as anyone, the action on the field under the Friday night lights. Or midweek, under the late afternoon sun, for that matter.
But we think the experience of the Philadelphia Phillies might serve as a cautionary tale.
After three games into their pandemic-shortened season, the Phillies were sidelined because 18 players and two coaches with the team they played last weekend — the Miami Marlins — tested positive for COVID-19. Two Phillies clubhouse staff members and a coach also tested positive last week. (Indeed, as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, one-fifth of all major league baseball teams were unable to play Friday because of the coronavirus.)
These are elite professional athletes and coaches with access to daily testing, who play a relatively socially distanced sport for teams with the resources to thoroughly sanitize their clubhouses and equipment, in a professional league that devised a 100-plus-page operations manual for playing in a pandemic — and still their seasons came to a grinding halt.
How is a high school team going to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak?
Decision time nears
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of COVID-19 spread in youth sports is lowest when individual athletes perform “skill-building drills or conditioning at home.” The risk increases with team practices, and increases even more with full “competition between teams from the same local geographic area.” The highest risk is in full “competition between teams from different geographic areas.”
Which describes, essentially, a high school sports season.
As Reinhart reported, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association on Wednesday approved a 26-page plan for returning to competition, meaning that “Lancaster-Lebanon League athletes should be prepared to begin fall practices at their on-campus facilities in mid-August.”
The decision as to whether schools in that league actually compete remains with school administrators and school boards. But decision time nears.
Heat acclimatization practice is slated to begin for football Aug. 10, and fall practices for other sports are to begin Aug. 17, Reinhart reported last Sunday.
Solanco athletic director Anthony Hall, who also serves as the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s field hockey chair, told Reinhart: “For now, we’re totally focused on, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re involved, and we’re going day by day.’ ”
That’s the only realistic attitude. In a pandemic, life turns on a dime.
On Thursday, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, comprised of Lehigh Valley high schools, decided “by consensus” to delay the start of fall contact sports — field hockey, soccer and football, the Allentown Morning Call reported.
Also, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League announced Friday that it was delaying and shortening its football season.
And the Norristown Area School District — “a very large District 1 program,” Reinhart noted on Twitter — announced last week that it was suspending all fall sports.
“We recognize the angst this will bring for our student-athletes, coaches, and gameday staff,” that district said in a statement, “but it is the health and safety of those groups and their families that are paramount.”
Notably, the district, which will offer only virtual learning until January, added: “If we cannot guarantee a safe return to the classroom, we cannot guarantee a safe return to the playing field, course, sidelines, courts or locker rooms.”
The plain reality is that school districts that plan to offer any level of in-person instruction beginning this month cannot guarantee that it’s safe. They assessed the risks and decided that classroom instruction is necessary for their students. But there are no guarantees.
Our view is this: If they’re going to take risks, we’d rather they prioritized classroom instruction over extracurricular activities, including sports.
But we know that’s an unpopular view.
Some of those arguing for a full return to in-person instruction and athletic competition point out that COVID-19 illness and death are less likely among children.
But what’s the line of demarcation? At what age do the risks begin to increase? That, we don’t yet fully know.
What we do know is that young adults increasingly account for COVID-19 cases in the United States. And in Pennsylvania.
According to the state Department of Health, individuals ages 19 to 24 represented just 5% of COVID-19 cases in the southeast region — which includes Lancaster County — in April.
In July, that percentage jumped to 19%.
Some people figure that even if young adults have mild COVID-19 symptoms, it’s no big deal.
But a study posted by the CDC on July 24 found that nearly 1 in 5 young adults ages 18-34 with no chronic medical conditions had not returned to their usual state of health 14 to 21 days after testing positive for COVID-19.
They weren’t hospitalized. Their symptoms were relatively mild. They had no underlying health conditions. But still their recovery time was prolonged. And no one yet knows what their future health will look like.
Consider the case of 27-year-old Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who contracted COVID-19. After he returned to workouts, he learned he had myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle — a complication of COVID-19. He admitted to reporters that he was “kind of scared.” Even knowing what it is, he said, “it’s still scary.”
Again, this is an elite professional athlete, who has access to excellent medical care and testing. The myocarditis showed up on an MRI. Had it not been detected, it could have caused serious heart damage or even sudden death.
On Thursday, state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, urged Gov. Tom Wolf to develop guidelines so that spectators — including at minimum, parents and guardians of student-athletes — could attend fall sporting events.
“It is my belief that the Commonwealth can safely permit spectators, parents, and family members to attend fall athletic events if proper mitigation measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Martin, who serves as a member of the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee, wrote in a letter to the governor.
Frankly, this seems to us to be putting the cart before the horse.
As Reinhart noted in his story last Sunday, other questions remain — and they strike us as more pressing.
“What happens if the fall sports season starts on time, games are being played, and a player or a coach or a parent or a school official tests positive for COVID-19?” Reinhart wrote. “Must everyone on both teams that were potentially exposed be tested and then quarantined for two weeks?” (If so, presumably this would include coaches, trainers, those who drove the team buses — the list goes on.)
Those were just a couple of the questions Reinhart raised.
We’d tender another, more basic one, which we asked at the start of this editorial: Should high school student-athletes play in a pandemic?
We don’t have the answer. But we hope that those charged with answering it will act with the health and safety of student-athletes foremost in mind.