Echoing Health Secretary Levine, Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease specialist, said contact sports should be postponed this fall.
State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine doubled down this week on delaying youth sports to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The move comes just days after Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly sent a letter urging officials to allow children to play organized sports.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf recommended that organized youth sports not resume again until the beginning of next year. He explained that Pennsylvanians need to be doing everything in their power to defeat the virus, which has killed 7,409 and infected 122,121 as of Thursday.
“So any time we get together for any reason, that’s a problem, because it makes it easier for that virus to spread. So the guidance from us, recommendation, is that we don’t do any sports until January 1st,” he said.
But his recommendation has drawn ire from state Republicans who feel that youth sports could help children adjust to the new normal of the pandemic.
“Youth sports, including baseball and softball, are a vital part of children’s summer routine and the return of this sport will help them readjust toward the new normal,” eight Republican members of the state House and Senate wrote in a June letter to state officials. They include Reps. Todd Polinchock (R-Chalfont), Frank Farry (R-Langhorne), Craig Staats (R-Quakertown), Meghan Schroeder (R-Warminster), Wendi Thomas (R-Richboro) and Kathleen Tomlinson (R-Bensalem), and Sens. Robert Tomlinson (R-Bucks) and Bob Mensch (R-Berks, Bucks, Montgomery).
Although children largely seem to develop only mild cases of COVID-19, they are still at risk of contracting the virus and could pass it along to other more vulnerable members of the community. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 338,000 children have contracted COVID-19 across the United States. This total includes a sharp increase in recent weeks, and is expected to increase as schools begin to reopen.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) announced last week that it would delay making a decision over whether fall sports will resume until after its next meeting on Aug. 21. The board issued a statement saying they hope Wolf and other government agencies “work collaboratively to further discuss fall sports.”
In the meantime, Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) introduced legislation this week that would give school districts the power to decide whether fall sports can move forward, and, if they do, whether or not spectators can attend. The bill aims to take the decision-making power away from state officials and the PIAA.
Health experts have noted, however, that the virus can still be easily transmitted among kids even if they do play outdoors. In fact, some recreational sports teams have already seen positive cases within their ranks: In Montgomery County, for instance, team members and coaches in outdoor baseball, football, soccer and field hockey tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Many of these individuals developed symptoms within days after the events,” Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said. “They were participating while they spread it but didn’t know they had it.”
During a press conference on Monday, Health Secretary Levine pointed out: “Even though many of those sports are outside, many of the sports are going to involve a lot of personal contact—not only football but especially football—where social distancing is not going to be possible.”
She noted that officials want to give students every opportunity for in-person instruction, and one way to do that is to hold off on organized youth sports until early 2021.
“We wanted to give kids the best chance to stay healthy, and counties and kids the best chance to actually have a full in-person education,” Levine said. She also noted that experts are concerned about the 2020 flu season coinciding with the pandemic, which could prove to be a deadly combination. “Given what we’re anticipating in the fall [it’s just not safe] for children to be in sports.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is also little known about Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a condition associated with COVID-19 complications in which different body parts, including the heart, lungs, kidney, brain or eyes, become inflamed.
The Department of Health’s Deputy Press Secretary Maggi Mumma said Pennsylvania has one of the highest case counts of the syndrome, with 40 confirmed cases of MIS-C thus far.
“From the beginning of the outbreak in the United States, we have seen how quickly community spread takes hold and how difficult it is to get it under control,” Mumma told The Keystone via email. “We continue to experience outbreaks and community spread throughout Pennsylvania. This recommendation for no fall sports is not only based on data, but common sense.”
Other public health experts agree. Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease specialist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said that contact sports should be postponed. She noted football in particular has a high risk of transmitting the virus.
In fact, even athletes at the college level are being told to sit out this season. Dr. David Petron, a team doctor for the University of Utah and one of several medical experts working with the PAC-12 football conference, said that his recommendation is to “stop contact and competitive activities at this time.”