Earlier this month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer urged schools and clubs to drop their youth sporting events as the Midwestern state grapples. another wave in Covid cases.
The next day, hundreds of children, parents and coaches converged on the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo for the annual Michigan Youth Wrestling Association Championships, where maskless competitors clashed, threw themselves and each other. pinned for three days of competition.
Those involved in the youth wrestling say they could not have considered canceling the many competitions that mark the end of the national wrestling season. But health experts warn events like this helped spark a wave of infections that again left hospitals to a breaking point.
Rick Sadler, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Michigan State University, said, “Whitmer called on people to give up youth sports and people didn’t take it seriously. People think they are children and do not pass them on, but the B.1.1.7 strain [which is now dominant in the US] is a completely different ball game.
“We are close to the worst peak Michigan but this time, it’s the young people who populate our emergency services. “
The battle over youth sports is just one aspect of a larger push by politicians and health officials to encourage Americans to remain cautious even as the U.S. vaccine rollout continues at a rapid pace . Public health experts fear that the success of the vaccination program has made people overconfident about their chances of avoiding the virus, causing a sudden spike in parts of the country.
Michigan was at the center of the latest US wave, with the seven-day average of new cases recently approaching its all-time high of around 8,000 per day, according to the data from Johns Hopkins University. There are now roughly 4000 people in hospital with disease across the state – more than at any time during the pandemic. Deaths have also started to increase.
Health officials blamed the spike on a range of factors, but the state’s competitive youth sports scene tops the list.
The state health department identified at least 291 clusters associated with youth sports since January, covering 1,091 cases. Indoor sports appear to be the biggest problem, with 106 clusters coming from basketball, 62 from wrestling and 51 from ice hockey.
Wrestling is considered a particularly high risk – the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not wearing a mask during sport because of the risk that competitors could choke on them.
In December, a high school wrestling tournament in Florida sparked a Covid-19 epidemic responsible for at least 79 cases and one death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nevertheless, recent competitions have attracted a lot of people, say participants. Parents and coaches said they felt reassured by the stringent testing requirements that require any wrestler to test negative for Covid within 72 hours of competition.
“We haven’t had anyone who has tested positive or been exposed,” said Pete Israel, a high school wrestling trainer in Salem. “If all these guys are in such close contact and don’t understand, is that really a problem?”
Israel’s comments reflect the opinion of many who are involved in youth sports across the country.
A recent poll by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University found that while 66% of high school students said they were worried they could catch or pass Covid through participation in sports, 84% said they were at least as interested in playing than they had been before the pandemic.
“In the United States, the youth club sports scene has returned quite quickly – a year ago in many places,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports & Society program at the Aspen Institute.
Unlike much of Europe, youth sports play a major role in the development of professional talent in the United States, where athletes are often recruited at a young age by professional teams.
“This is a highly commercialized industry – people will be traveling across the country to get to the next big event where they can be seen by the college scout,” Solomon said. “There are families who will spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to bring their child to college sports.”
Some schools have allowed athletes to stay in virtual learning to minimize their risk of taking Covid and not being allowed to compete. Others ask their teams to eat lunch separately from the other students.
And many parents and coaches are angry that the virus is spreading through competitions. They suggest that social events associated with team sports may play a larger role.
“I don’t know of a single case where Covid came from the sport itself,” said Holly Locke, office manager at Canton Soccer Club in Canton, Michigan, and parent of two high school athletes. “It came from parents where they contracted it from a friend or got it outside of school and they happen to be athletes.”
Locke added, “We went to Florida for my son’s senior spring break, along with other athletes from the school. A good number of children contracted Covid there – my son stayed away from the holidays, but a lot of the children were all hanging out together and got sick.
Despite this, Locke says she remains determined to keep her children involved with their football and basketball teams.
“I didn’t think for a minute if it was worth it,” she said. “It was everything my son had been looking forward to for three years in high school – playing soccer and basketball in his senior year.
“He missed school, he missed the ride home – missing sport too would have put the nail in the coffin.
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