MDHHS doctor says Michigan high school sports are ‘at a tipping point’ as coronavirus cases surge

As coronavirus case rates, positivity rates and hospitalizations rates begin to surge once again in Michigan, the high school sports landscape continues to be impacted by quarantines.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association said this week that a combined 101 boys and girls basketball teams have withdrawn from the state tournament over a nine-day period that started on March 15. Also, there have been numerous reports of hockey, wrestling and cheer teams withdrawing from their respective state tournaments as well.

With high school teams entering quarantine because of at least one positive test or because of close exposures to opponents who had a positive test, the last two weeks of sports in Michigan have been especially tumultuous because quarantines continue to end seasons daily.

According to Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, a senior public health physician with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, this current surge in cases coincides with a critical juncture for high school sports moving forward.

“We’re really at a tipping point,” Bagdasarian said. “When we look at our case-wide trends, we are not heading in the right direction. Things are a little grim at the moment, and I think if we don’t double down on those mitigation practices, if we don’t double down on testing and getting more vaccines in arms, I’m concerned about progression of these athletic team outbreaks.”

The MDHHS ordered a pause on all sports last year on Nov. 15 during a surge that saw daily case rates rise to over 9,000. Fall sports did not resume until January and winter sports were postponed to early February.

On Wednesday this week, the MDHHS reported 4,454 new coronavirus as the seven-day moving average rose to 3,122. It was the first time the state averaged more than 3,000 cases since Jan. 12 and the highest one-day average since reporting 3,126 on Jan. 12. In a March 22 report from the MDHHS, there are 1,341 staff and students infected in ongoing outbreaks at 144 schools serving pre-K through high school. That compares to 978 infected at 107 schools in ongoing outbreaks in the previous week’s report.

“If we look at the age group that led in this upward tick, it’s 10 to 18 year olds,” Bagdasarian said. “Even though older adult can have worse outcomes, kids are not completely immune from having bad outcomes with COVID. There are a lot of kids who are seriously ill, hospitalized in the ICU and end up with other complications from COVID. That’s number one, is that kids can get very sick.”

Additionally, Bagdasarian said every sick child, no matter the symptoms, can potentially pass along the illness to the more vulnerable adults in their lives and can also get passed along in the community.

Because of the current surge, some worry that another high school sports shutdown is looming. However, Bagdasarian was not ready to rush to that conclusion.

“I don’t think I can make any predictions on that but I will say that we are concerned,” Bagdasarian said. “If we can’t control these outbreaks and if we can’t control these cases from happening, we may need to rethink the strategy.”

Bagdasarian said one of the MDHHS’s top priorities is being able to keep schools open and safe.

“We at the state have prioritized keeping schools open,” Bagdasarian said. “Our goal is to keep schools open and available for in-person learning. With high school athletic outbreaks, we’re risking not just those athletic outbreaks, we’re risking not just those athletic teams, but we’re posing risk to that whole school and to that learning environment and to that community. In general, that’s why we’re concerned.

MHSAA communications director Geoff Kimmerly said discussions with the MDHHS have not included the topic of implementing another pause to high school sports. As far as the MHSAA is concerned, its primary focus is to finish the winter sports season that concludes on April 10 with the boy basketball state championships.

“We all realize that we have a pretty intense three-week stretch to go with all of our winter sports finishing up for the winter,” said MHSAA communications director Geoff Kimmerly. “I think everyone is just doing everything they can to give themselves the opportunities to play.”

In hopes of avoiding another sports shutdown, the MDHHS and MHSAA are partnering for a widespread testing program starting April 2 for all remaining basketball players and all spring sports athletes. On Wednesday, the MHSAA released guidance from the MDHHS that requires schools to complete an antigen test of athletes one time per week. There is no requirement that the antigen tests be completed before specific practices or contests, meaning schools could potentially test athletes at any point during the school day to help with schedule flexibility.

However, MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl mentioned in the update that “the most challenging part of the process previously has been the online submission of test results to MDHHS. The MHSAA has made a strong request for this process to become easier and more efficient for schools prior to the April 2 date. We will continue to advocate and push for these result reporting process modifications. We will keep you posted on this issue.”

Bagdasarian remains insistent that testing is a much-needed attribute when trying to combat the current coronavirus surge and hopes athletes continue to cooperate moving forward.

“We really need everyone to participate. We really need people to wear their masks while they’re playing if they’re in a sport that’s safe to wear a mask. We really need people to adhere to the testing program, and if you test positive, please cooperate with case investigation and contact tracing. It doesn’t do us any good if you won’t tell us who you’ve exposed or where you could have been exposed.”

Currently, the MHSAA does not even want to entertain the idea of another sports pause as it hopes the testing program will be able to help track cases and minimize exposures moving forward.

“I don’t think that’s anything we’re even thinking about right now,” Kimmerly said. “We’ve spoken to the health department within the last week and we know that testing can be in place and that’s the next step. That’s what we are doing. There has not been one word discussed about us having to suddenly shut down. At least in this office, we’re just not considering that. We’re anticipating things that we need to do to play.”

Kimmerly also acknowledged the 51 boys and 50 girls basketball teams that withdrew from the tournament, saying it is a lot more than anything the MHSAA would see in a normal year. But after seeing fall sports teams have to forfeit there sports in state tournaments, Kimmerly said it’s one of the tough realities the MHSAA and everyone has to expect as the winter tournaments press on.

“It’s considered inevitable to a degree,” Kimmerly said. “What we’re doing is our schools are preparing for the testing program to start and doing everything they can to have routines in place.”

Coaches still competing in the state tournament have voiced their anxieties in recent weeks as other teams continued to drop out of the state tournament.

According to a report from MiSportsNow.com, the Gaylord wrestling team was forced to forfeit its spot in the Fremont region championships on Wednesday after a player tested positive for COVID. Notably, Gaylord is ranked No. 2 in Division 2 by Michigan Grappler and the forfeit even had an impact on the remaining teams competing.

“It’s happening all over the place,” said Bay City John Glenn coach Matt Bishop. “I feel awful for Gaylord. I mean, Gaylord is the No. 2 team in the state of Michigan. I feel like they’re the team that would walk out of this regional… It’s unfortunate – (Gaylord coach) Jerry (LaJoie) is a good coach and those boys deserve to be down here.”

Fremont ended up winning the region championship, but Gaylord’s forfeit only reminded Fremont coach Craig Zeerip about the uncertainty that still hangs in the air.

“We don’t know what else to say other than, ‘Hey, take it day by day, practice social distancing, don’t go out, stay with your family,’” Zeerip said. “… we’re just going to do our part and hopefully things work out.”

As winter sports close and high school sports move back outdoors for spring, Bagdasarian believes it will alleviate many of the current risk factors involved with indoor winter sports. Still, she has her concerns with how seriously everyone will continue to fall COVID mitigation procedures.

“Absolutely that will help,” Bagdasarian said. “If you are on a soccer team, for example, and everyone is playing outdoors and wearing their mask, that’s fantastic. That’s a relatively lower risk activity then. However, if then that team goes out to dinner or goes over to someone’s house after and everyone takes off their masks, then it doesn’t really matter if the athletic event was low risk if they’re participating in high-risk activities. This is what we keep seeing. Even though we keep trying to control what’s happening in school and on the field, what’s happening in people’s homes is what we don’t have control over.

Bagdasarian brought up the fact that there is no approved pediatric vaccine yet and only those 16 and older will be eligible to be vaccinated in the interim. Until all youth can receive vaccinations, she believes there could still be COVID mitigation orders in effect for the foreseeable future.

“Fall 2022 I’m pretty hopeful for,” Bagdasarian said. “But fall 2021? it really depends on a few things. It depends on how quickly we can get people to take the vaccine. Very soon, we will be in a position where we will have the vaccine available to anyone who wants it, but we really need to encourage everyone to get vaccinated. We need to encourage everyone who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated.

“Until we get kids vaccinated or adolescents vaccinated, that’s going to be another big hurdle to overcome. I am hoping that the fall of 2021 is going to feel a lot more normal than the fall of 2020, but it really depends on a lot of these factors.”

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