Commentary: Ground rules for youth sports in age of COVID

By Dr. Kara Odom Walker

In a lot of ways, Delaware and the rest of our country is built around sports. We love to watch professional or college sporting events on TV or in person. Many of us have played high school sports, including Gov. John Carney and myself. And for even more Delaware families, our kids play youth sports. They’re in summer, fall or spring leagues, earn their way onto travel teams, and play in tournaments or festivals in nearby or faraway states. Youth sports are a big deal.

As parents, the commitment is demanding: You drive your kids to practices and games, work in the concession stands, fundraise for travel teams, act as the designated driver or chaperone for travel tournaments, and join grandparents and other relatives in watching and cheering at all the games.

Dr. Kara Odom Walker

That sports-loving world as we knew it changed in the middle of March when we announced the first presumptive positive COVID-19 case in our state and, not long after, when the governor issued orders to close the schools and for all of us to stay home unless we were essential workers. It was as if we all collectively hit the brakes as we reached the stoplight at the same time. Youth sports were among the many activities that came to a screeching halt.

Earlier this month, the rolling recovery that the governor’s administration has implemented added in youth sports. As we begin to embrace this new culture in youth sports that puts public health safety measures at the center, I urge families to think about the level of risk they are willing to accept.

As a family doctor, I also want them to think about how they will minimize that risk with everything that children, parents and other adults do related to youth sports —‒ from playing and practicing their beloved sports, to using sports equipment, to sitting in the stands, to traveling to a game or tournament.

The first thing to remember is that the virus is still here. We all need to act as if we are infected and make the priority keeping ourselves and others safe and healthy. While children generally have not been as severely affected by COVID-19 as seniors and adults with underlying health conditions, they are carriers of the virus. As of June 18, 504 children in Delaware ages 5-17 have tested positive for COVID-19 or about 5% of our total positive cases. The danger is that children become asymptomatic carriers who unknowingly spread the virus to adults, especially those with underlying health conditions, including coaches, parents or grandparents who might be living in the immediate household.

The guidance that our Division of Public Health has come up with for each youth sport is about mitigating that risk and putting social distancing —‒ remaining at least 6 feet away from others ‒— at the forefront. Coaches, sports staff, officials, parents and other spectators must wear face coverings as much as possible. Everyone needs their own water bottle, and shared sports equipment like bats or volleyballs need to be wiped down between uses.

As youth sports make the transition from practices to games to tournaments, the risk increases and the ability to socially distance may be next to impossible in certain sports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details the risk levels:

• Lowest risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members.

• Increasing risk: Team-based practice.

• More risk: Within-team competition.

• Even more risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area.

• Highest risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas.

For your family, if a parent has a serious chronic health condition, such as heart disease, diabetes or severe obesity, or is immunocompromised from cancer treatments, the risk of increased exposure from a child playing youth sports may be too great. But if everyone in the family is healthy, you may be willing to assume a certain level of risk —‒ maybe games with other teams in your league, but not multi-day tournaments here in Delaware.

Other families will embrace everything, including tournament play. Each family’s acceptable level of risk will be different. The sport and the way it’s played also need to be considered in terms of how close players are to each other and whether close contact or any contact is involved (e.g., outdoor basketball, soccer, lacrosse). You can mitigate your children’s and family’s risk by considering these steps:

• For adults, wear a face covering in the stands or while coaching, and, for kids, wear one when you are not playing.

• Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer frequently.

• Disinfect shared equipment between uses.

• As hard as it is during sports, avoid the high-fives, the daps and the hugs. Person-to-person contact is the most common way the virus is transmitted.

• Shower as soon as your child and you get home from games and throw your clothes in a laundry basket or washing machine.

• If any member of your family is sick, you all should stay home. It’s better to be cautious than to risk infecting others.

• Get tested for coronavirus, especially if you have any of the symptoms —‒ fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, chills, shaking with chills or loss of smell or taste. There is no minimum or maximum age for testing. In Delaware, the free saliva-based testing is easy to sign up for in advance and you can do it as a family. For information on testing, including testing events by county, visit coronavirus.delaware.gov/testing.

In Delaware, we are grateful that our health-related COVID-19 statistics are headed in the right direction, especially hospitalizations and patients in critical care. During this time, we are building up our testing capacity and our ability to quickly contact people who are newly diagnosed as positive cases, as well as their close contacts. That’s important because newly infected individuals must isolate until the risk of transmitting the contagious virus to others has passed and those who have been exposed to someone with the virus must self-quarantine until they can be tested, too.

As more of our state’s businesses and activities —‒ including youth sports ‒— resume, the best thing we can do to continue our positive COVID-19 trends is to embrace our new normal of wearing face coverings, maintaining social distancing, washing our hands or using hand sanitizer frequently, and staying home when we are sick. We will work together to develop safe approaches that are tailored to the sport and level of competition, but it will take every family sitting down to determine their acceptable level of risk. That’s how we will keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe and healthy.

Dr. Kara Odom Walker is the Cabinet secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and a practicing family physician.