Sports and COVID-19: Should Your Child Participate?
Q&A With Dr. Stephen Threlkeld: Should Children Return to Sports During COVID-19?
As communities and schools in the Mid-South begin to start youth sports, health care professionals urge parents and coaches to consider how they can help keep children as safe as possible. Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist who works with Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, recommends actions parents and schools can take to lower the risk of exposure and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Q: How can parents protect their kids if sports start again?
A: The protections for kids who participate in school sports are an extension of the protections for kids who return to in-person classes. In general, children should wear masks and maintain at least 6 feet of social distance. This is very difficult to do with school-aged populations. It is also challenging to do in certain sports, such as football, basketball and other team activities.
Sports introduce situations that present potential risks of infection—from large team meetings in poorly ventilated rooms to huddles in which players are close together and may be breathing heavily from the last play. We simply don’t know the full extent of the risks yet.
Outdoor sports may be less of a risk than indoor sports. But we must remember, it is still a risk when kids are in close contact with each other.
Q: Should parents allow their kids to participate?
A: Unfortunately, that question can only be answered with confidence in retrospect. We don’t have enough information to know with certainty right now. That’s a problem we have faced in many scenarios with this infection.
Young athletes might be in close contact with others who are breathing heavily or raising their voices—behaviors that emit respiratory droplets. However, we think outdoor activities pose a lower risk of spreading COVID-19 than indoor activities do. It could be that we’ll see fewer cases with an outdoor sport like football, for example. It all depends on how much being outside helps to decrease the contagiousness of this virus.
Q: What should parents consider about allowing their kids to participate?
A: As a parent, you want to be confident that your child’s coach is aware of the risks of infection and attempts to minimize unnecessary close contact. Of course, coaches cannot eliminate all risks. Some sports will involve a certain level of close contact.
You can’t tackle someone from more than 6 feet away in football, but you can avoid a 20-person team meeting in a small room with poor ventilation. It’s important that local and national coaching staffs know the risks and take steps to minimize those risks.
Q: Are some sports more dangerous than others when it comes to COVID-19 exposure?
A: Some individual sports are probably a bit safer. Golf, for example, likely poses less risk than a contact team sport, such as basketball. Golf is an outdoor sport, and players can stay physically distanced. This is harder to achieve with basketball or football.
Q: What is superspreading, and can it happen at your child’s sporting event?
A: Superspreading means one infectious person could potentially infect multiple people. Superspreading could happen if a sporting event combines multiple risk factors. These risk factors include crowded spaces, areas with poor ventilation, and people who practice high-risk behaviors, such as not wearing masks and not staying at least 6 feet apart.
When you combine those factors, you’re at risk of regular virus transmission and superspreading transmission. We should do what we can to reduce those risks to keep players safe, as well as the people they come into contact with, including older teachers, teachers with medical problems, parents and grandparents.
Q: Is there anything else parents should know?
A: The history of respiratory viruses, including pandemics, shows they get much worse in the fall and winter. We should take steps now to minimize this virus among student populations and, in doing so, potentially reduce community transmission over the next several months.
Potential vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments are on the horizon. We don’t want to make serious mistakes before those items are available to use as weapons against this virus.