As millions of children mask up and head to school across the County, Covid-19 outbreaks are inevitable, and so far youth sports are proving to be the leading culprit.
Of all the school outbreaks that occurred in August, half were associated with school sports. According to County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, sports pose heightened risk of transmission as students travel together for competitions, come in close contact with each other, and breathe heavily due to physical exertion.
“At the level of high community transmission where we are now in L.A. County, the CDC actually recommends canceling or holding high risk sports and extracurricular activities virtually unless all of the participants are fully vaccinated,” said Ferrer.
High risk sports are defined as those with close contact and particularly those that are indoors, such as volleyball or basketball. Moderate risk sports such as soccer have less contact and are more likely to be outdoors, whereas low risk sports include built-in outdoor distance such as baseball or cross country. Regardless of the risk ranking, Ferrer said all youth sports pose the possibility of transmission.
There’s pretty much no team sport at this point in L.A. County where we haven’t had an exposure,” said Ferrer. “Some of it is on the field, some of it is off the field. It’s really hard for us to ensure compliance with a set of rules about how people comport themselves, how much distancing, etc.”
Most districts are reluctant to cancel in-person sports seasons as they had long been planning for as close to normal of a school year as possible.
SMMUSD, is continuing all of its sports seasons, but is mandating masks be worn at all times except for water sports, and requiring frequent testing.
Ferrer noted that the Delta variant is the key cause of disruption in many schools’ anticipated vision for the fall semester and is causing the Public Health Department to alter some of its guidance. For example, the Department now advises negative test results for all student athletes and staff within 72 hours of an inter-team competition.
“I do join with you in wishing that it was a lot simpler and that rules didn’t need to change, but the virus has changed and we all need some flexibility to adapt to this more dangerous variant,” said Ferrer.
In more positive news, school age children continue to be at low risk of health complications from Covid-19, even as the number of cases increase as the majority of students are now back on campus.
“The hospitalization rate for unvaccinated children is about one hospitalization for every 100,000 children,” said Ferrer. “Nevertheless, this is much higher than the virtually nonexistent hospitalizations among the vaccinated children.”
During the week of Aug. 13 to 22, L.A. County schools reported a total of 3,186 new cases among students and staff. The majority of sites only reported one case and no further spread, while 63 sites reported two cases and 123 sites reported three or more cases.
“In all of these instances where there are three or more cases our team is hard at work on determining whether this is an outbreak and if it is an outbreak in a school setting, we work closely with the school community to make sure that we’re mitigating appropriately,” said Ferrer, adding that she does expect an uptick in outbreaks in the coming weeks as more students have returned to campus.
SMMUSD began its testing program this week and is requiring all students and staff to be tested weekly regardless of their vaccination status.