Health experts weigh in on likelihood of winter sports season
With more and more school districts either doing — or considering moving back to — remote learning for the remainder of the calendar year, the CIAC made the decision Tuesday to postpone the start of the winter sports season until Jan. 19.
There are plenty of opinions as to what the COVID-19 pandemic will look like in Connecticut come January. But how the COVID numbers will exactly look like in two months, no one knows for sure.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I hope the citizens of Connecticut step up and do their part to contain COVID. If they do, we can have sports and school in January and February,” said Dr. Stephanie Arlis-Mayor, the chairperson of the CIAC’s Connecticut State Medical Society (CSMS) committee. “If we don’t, then we can’t. It’s so dependent on how people behave over the next six weeks.”
In addition to being the chair of the CSMS committee she has represented for the last 12 years, Arlis-Mayor has worked in primary care sports medicine for approximately three decades. She is also the head team physician for Yale University athletics and also has a private practice at Connecticut Orthopedics.
With such an extensive background working in athletics, you can understand why Arlis-Mayor has deep empathy for the winter sports athletes having to wait two extra months at the earliest to begin practice; the original starting date was Saturday.
“My heart bleeds for them,” Arlis-Mayor said. “We want kids to play their sport. It’s such an important part for youths and their health. It’s a great outlet for exercise, mental health, well-being, socialization, leadership-building and character-building. At the same time, public health and safety are very important. Balancing those two things is something we have to do. … It is important that we try and have sports available in a school-based system.”
Gov. Ned Lamont said in his Thursday news conference that effective Monday, all other club and team sports in Connecticut will also have to pause practices and games until Jan. 19.
Dr. Michael Virata, an infectious disease MD on faculty at Yale, isn’t so sure it will be much better come mid-January.
“Given the current conditions where we are seeing increasing numbers of infected patients and rates trending upwards that are high, it seems unlikely that sports will return in January, although I do hope that there will still be a chance that the situation will reverse course,” said Virata, who is also a member of the New Haven County Medical Association and the representative to the Public Health committee for CSMS.
Arlis-Mayor said the makeup of the CSMS committee includes cardiologists, those involved with pediatrics and internal medicine, physiatrists (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physicians), orthopedic surgeons and someone who is both an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist.
They advise the CIAC on all medical matters. “We are normally scheduled to meet five times a year. This year we’ve met (virtually) at least every month or twice a month about the issues at hand to make sure the committee stays informed,” Arlis-Mayor said.
The proposal the CIAC came up with originally had sports practices beginning on Dec. 5 and basketball games and boys swimming meets to begin the regular season on Dec. 17 with a caveat: It was recommended any town currently in the red zone of COVID-19 metrics should suspend any competition.
“The decisions we made are based on information we have at that moment in time. We understand decisions change when data or information changes,” Arlis-Mayor said.
Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of High Schools, said on Wednesday that 29 states have modified their winter sports seasons, including a number of them pushing the start date back.
Niehoff suggests that in addition to proper COVID practices like wearing masks and hygiene, gymnasiums need to have proper ventilation and only allow in fans that a facility can manage property.
“Crowds must be managed to accommodate the necessary distancing of spectators, and plans must be in place to keep fans from congregating, such as at halftime or following the game,” Niehoff said. “One idea to enhance social distancing is to eliminate concession stands this year — or at least package items in a manner that improves the flow and lessens the chance of fan interaction.”
Virata also suggested the necessity for a good ventilation system to host events, minimal overlap with teams, sanitizing equipment during games and, if at all possible, any kind of COVID testing leading into sporting events.
Virata also suggested a number of the mitigation strategies and protocols the CIAC already had in place for the fall: Use locker rooms and workout rooms as little as possible, no sharing of equipment and attempt to remain socially distant when it is possible.
Had the season started in December, CIAC athletes playing a moderate-risk sport would have been wearing masks at least until the end of 2020 to be in line with state Department of Health regulations. That mandate could remain in place if and when winter sports return.
“Whatever is appropriate for each school that is game-level appropriate for sports,” Arlis-Mayor said. “We feel we didn’t want to dictate the type of masks.”
Virata himself said he recently purchased a sports mask and doesn’t “feel that it’s any better than a hospital mask while working out.”
Arlis-Mayor felt the mitigation strategies and protocols put in place by the CIAC allowed for the fall season to be completed.
“We had good weather, so we were able to stay outside and keep things under control,” Arlis-Mayor said. “I was surprised that in the end, we didn’t have (11-on-11) football. I was not surprised that football ended up going private and football did fine as far as COVID goes. There were not any significant outbreaks we were aware of.”
In the end, it will be the virus that dictates whether high school sports can be held in a safe manner.
“Ultimately, it will be a decision made by those that have most of the information, including leaders of the DPH and the Department of Education, to inform CIAC about schools’ readiness to begin indoor sports with the primary goal of keeping people as safe as possible,” Virata said. “It is very distressing to imagine a world involving students going through schooling without the ability to participate in sports and the impact that will have with so many young lives.”