After a year on the sidelines, young athletes can trickle back to the playing fields

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This week Los Angeles and Orange County saw their COVID-19 case rates fall below 14 infections per 100,000 people, so now outdoor sports can restart. Photo by USAG-Humphreys (CC BY 2.0).

Some high school and youth sports teams in California could soon be competing for the first time in almost a year. The state has given the go-ahead for many outdoor sports — think football, rugby, soccer, baseball, softball — to be played as soon as Friday in counties that are in the red or purple tiers of California’s COVID monitoring system.   

There are conditions, though. Among them: The local COVID case rate must be 14 or less per 100,000 residents. Los Angeles and Orange County dropped below that threshold this week, but it’s not clear how soon local athletes will be back in action.

Host Chery Glaser talks about the pros and cons of getting the games going with Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis.

KCRW: What are the advantages of getting youth sports up and running again at this point in the pandemic?

Michael Wilkes: “So there are clearly benefits. Anytime that we can re-engage in physical activity with friends, there are physical, psychological, and perhaps even immunological benefits. Exercise is a good thing. Mentally, athletes may experience the benefits of social interaction of some supervision by coaches, and clearly the benefits that come from some sort of a structured routine.”

 Do you see any risks?

“Yeah, there are clearly risks. Athletes, educators, coaches all play an important role in school transmission.

There are four types of adult responses to COVID. There are those who believe the science, there are those who deny the science, there are those who don't understand the science. And then there are those who engage in what I call magical thinking, ‘this won't happen to me.’ All it takes is one denier who doesn't follow the rules to get the entire team sick. And then it will spread to the family and perhaps to community members, and this could result in death.

Parents and coaches need to keep sick kids at home as soon as they develop symptoms. Now, of course, this could risk losing a game or a match. But really what's more important, a life or a match?”

 What would you say to parents who are trying to balance the risks and the benefits?

“Parents need to make sure the team, the coaches, other parents are taking prevention seriously. This means masks and social distancing, and regular testing of all players, coaches and staff. It’s important to monitor disease in the community. The lower the rate of disease in the community, the lower the risk of catching it playing a sport.

Also, not all sports are not equal. The risk of transmission depends on the number of players, the spacing between players, and the setting. Indoor is much more risky than outdoor.

And while it's not a main route of transmission, it is still possible for COVID to be transmitted on surfaces. So shared sports equipment, facilities,  common surfaces need to be cleaned regularly.”

 If your child has been champing at the bit to get onto the field and get active in their favorite sport again, is there something you can do to help reduce the risk for them?

 “The problem here is that peer pressure comes in. You know, ‘Mom, Dad, don't do that. Don't say that, you're gonna be the only one.’ But there are lots of things, no shared objects like water bottles, towels, helmets and the like. Communal spaces, like locker rooms, should have staggered practice time so you don't have people coming and going at the same time.

There are sports like wrestling and basketball that make it nearly impossible to maintain physical distancing. And for those sports, it makes sense to move from a competition focus to individual skill building, at least this year.

Also, limiting travel. The more you can play and compete locally, the better.

And lastly, something that may not be so obvious for those who've had moderate COVID with fever and muscle pains and fatigue, and certainly for anybody that's been hospitalized: An EKG test and a medical evaluation are in order to rule out heart disease for these young athletes. That's really important and people really aren't thinking about that as much.”

 Under the state guidelines, weekly testing is required in high contact outdoor sports like football and soccer — for both coaches and  players who are 13 and older. For these sports, should testing be done before competitions?

 “That's not a bad idea. I think if it was up to me, I'd have all players tested weekly — 24 hours before any game or competition.”

 How about spectators? Should parents, siblings and friends attend children's sports practices and games?

 “Listeners probably are getting a feel for the fact that I'm overly cautious. I think that non-essential visitors, spectators and volunteers need to limit contact with the players. Anybody who is present for a game or practice should at least wear one mask. And certainly parents and other spectators with high risk conditions, things like diabetes or lung disease or cancer, should strongly consider not attending indoor events.

Hopefully teams can arrange for live streaming, or recording of athletic events so they can see them from a safe distance.”



Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman