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Blubaugh: We need to keep following the science, but what’s the science on transmission during sports? | COMMENTARY

Almost nothing about COVID-19 mitigation is black and white. Playing sports is a particularly gray area.

We understand why the professionals do it. Why Major League Baseball held a shortened sham of a season and why the NFL is willing to send out depleted teams on a Wednesday afternoon. There are literally billions of reasons, all green.

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It’s different with youth sports. The ones out on the courts and fields potentially putting themselves at risk, are doing so not because of some lucrative contract but rather for personal reasons.

For love of the game. For physical and/or mental health. For the sake of improving skills. For a chance to get out of the house.

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The decision as to whether it’s safe enough for kids to play sports — assessing the possibility of a head or neck injury, for example — has always been up to families. Now, it’s especially tough. Parents don’t want to see their kids get sick or become carriers to more vulnerable populations. But neither do they want to see their kids isolated, possibly struggling with mental health or emotional issues.

Just as parents are tasked with making decisions for their kids, the Carroll County Board of Education is tasked with making decisions for public school students. On Wednesday, the school board voted to go forward with the high school winter sports season, allowing practice to start Dec. 14 with the possibility of interscholastic basketball games and wrestling matches the first week of January.

I couldn’t be more biased on this one. I have kids who love sports. And I spent too many years covering high school sports, seeing and hearing, firsthand, how important it is for the athletes to play and be part of a team. Several board members have noted the same at meetings.

It must be both confusing and infuriating to students that Wednesday, as the board was meeting, they were forced to sit in front of laptops for another day of learning critical concepts home alone while their parents were free to go out, sit at a bar and cheer on the Ravens against the Steelers.

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That’s not to say we shouldn’t be taking precautions, adhering to guidelines, following the science. Problem is, what’s the science on playing sports?

Ed Singer, the county’s top-ranking health official, said Wednesday during the BOE meeting that he is against going forward with indoor sports based on the current number of COVID-19 cases in the community. But he conceded not much is known about transmission of the virus during the normal course of play.

Board members Marsha Herbert and Ken Kiler have pointed our repeatedly that kids have been playing sports pretty much throughout the pandemic. Travel and AAU basketball teams have been practicing and playing games, traveling to other states for tournaments. Kiler mentioned a wrestler competing in Oklahoma recently. Singer was asked if the health department was seeing coronavirus issues arising from youth sports.

“We’ve had significant outbreaks that have been more related to ... team bonding type activities than they are to the actual participation in the sports. I think it’s been more related to folks not following distance measures,” Singer said, noting that he is concerned about the direct physical contact that comes with the territory in sports. “I can’t say there is no transmission on the field. It’s hard for me to say.”

So the season will begin. Masks will be required at all times except during play and no fans will be allowed. Is it hygiene theater to allow kids to run into, push and sweat on each other but not allow them to slap hands when the game is over? Of course. But minimizing the risk is critical.

Just as a physical is required to play high school sports, so should be a negative COVID-19 test result. Won’t happen, but there should be a requirement that athletes be tested every two weeks. At the very least, temperatures should be taken prior to every practice or game, there should be no locker room use and if multiple buses are needed for transportation to ensure they are less than half full, so be it. Also, dishonesty about symptoms should hold similar consequences to cheating on a test.

There’s no way to make sports completely risk-free, though. Athletes will unknowingly bring COVID-19 into gyms from home. There may be outbreaks. Certainly there will be the need for quarantining and teams may have to shut down temporarily or end their season prematurely.

Luckily, high school athletes are in a demographic that overwhelmingly fares well against the virus. Still, the possibility of a teen becoming seriously ill does exist and the chance of infecting others is very real.

Unlike anywhere else in the state right now, Carroll County high school athletes and their families have this decision to make. Most will likely elect to play, but it’s far from black and white.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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