The Medic: With youth athletics restarting, COVID cases are on the rise

Columnist graphic for Pratik Thakur

As we approach the end of the collegiate sports season, especially with the “madness” of the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, I wanted to shift gears to talk about growing concerns for youth sports. 

With vaccination efforts increasing every day and President Biden’s announcement that all adults will be eligible for a vaccine by next week, things are hopefully heading back to normalcy. Even in Los Angeles this week, vaccine appointments have been opened for people age 16 and older. 

So, due to the growth in accessibility of vaccinations, many community areas and group activities are gradually beginning to reopen, thinking it is safe to do so. While I do agree restrictions can be slowly relaxed, there needs to be caution taken by those making such decisions.  

All over the country, schools have been restarting in-person learning and youth sports are being played fully again. Though there have been focused efforts to get teachers, administration and community members vaccinated, many adolescents are still unable to do so, since the vaccine is only approved for people 16 and older. When kids are playing basketball, soccer or any other sport with others involved, they can still transmit the virus. 

The reason why this topic came to my interest, even though I mainly cover professional and collegiate sports, is because of the numerous reports coming out across the country about cases rising again despite the vaccine rollout, with many pointing to youth sports as part of the issue. 

The CDC has found that the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first found in the United Kingdom, is increasing in both Michigan and Minnesota. For example, in March, this new strain was found within 68 cases related to school/club sports in Carver County, Min. 

The CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, voiced her concerns on how current youth sports regulations are a potential reason why there is a resurgence in cases in these states as well as the country in general.

“In [Michigan and Minnesota], there is concern about transmission in youth sports, both club sports as well as sports affiliated in school,” Dr. Walensky said in a news briefing at the White House. “I would advocate for a sort of stronger mitigation strategies… [to] decrease the community activity and shore up mask wearing.”

Due to this increase in cases, state officials are having to restrict activities once again. Michigan is leading the country with a case rate of 452.5 cases per 100,000 people. The state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is asking for in-person sports to pause all activities for two weeks as well as schools to offer remote education for two weeks after spring break so cases can drop again. 

It seems that in such states, where lawmakers are eager to get things back to normal, they are not considering the consequences such swift changes will cause. Even though vaccines are starting to become available to most adults, that does not mean that everyone is vaccinated yet. In fact, only 22.3% of the country is fully vaccinated so far. 

Additionally, having the vaccine doesn’t mean you are completely immune to the coronavirus. None of the “big 3” vaccines in the United States: Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, have a 100% efficacy rate, so there is still some risk attached to youth sports even with the vaccine.

Similar to what we are seeing in Michigan and Minnesota, it is imperative that other states and the nation as a whole do not speed up the process of returning back to normalcy, especially with youth sports. Although both states have major cities such as Detroit and Minneapolis, if a similar trend occurs in larger cities like L.A., health officials and the government may have to start issuing restrictions again. 

Currently, L.A. County is starting to reopen indoor sports and activities for both youth and adults. The main additional step that the county is taking, which can help curb any potential cases, is making these indoor sports adhere to collegiate requirements. 

College sports require regular testing. With so many people participating in these indoor sports, these testing requirements can help limit the spread of the virus, so that we do not witness another resurgence of cases and restrictions. 

With vaccinations increasing every day, we are getting closer and closer to the finish line, but we cannot stumble by reopening activities like youth sports too quickly. 

Pratik Thakur is a sophomore writing about sports and its intersection with health policy during the coronavirus pandemic. His column, “The Medic,” runs every other Wednesday.