Earlier this month, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, called on schools and clubs to abandon their youth sporting events as the U.S. Midwest struggled with another wave in Covid cases.
The next day, hundreds of children, parents and coaches gathered at the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo for the annual championship of the Youth Wrestling Federation in Michigan, where competitors without masks were caught, thrown and pinned during the three days of competition.
Those involved in youth wrestling say they could not have foreseen the cancellation of the hosts of the competition marking the end of the state wrestling season. But health experts warn that events like this have helped fuel a wave of infections that has once again left hospitals at a turning point.
Rick Sadler, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Michigan State University, said: “Whitmer made a demand that people give up youth sports and people didn’t take it seriously. People think they are children and do not transmit it, but strain B.1.1.7 [which is now dominant in the US] is a completely different ball game.
“We are close to the worst peak Michigan ever had, but this time it is the young people who inhabit our emergency services. “
The battle for youth sports is just one aspect of a broader effort by politicians and health officials to encourage Americans to remain cautious even as the U.S. introduction of the vaccine continues at a rapid pace. Public health experts are concerned about the success of vaccination programs that have been able to overconvince people of their chances of avoiding the virus, leading to a sharp jump in certain parts of the country.
Michigan is at the center of the latest U.S. wave, with a seven-day average of new cases recently approaching its record high of about 8,000 a day, according to the data from Johns Hopkins University. There are about now 4,000 people in a hospital with the disease across the state – more than ever during a pandemic. Deaths also began to rise.
Health officials blamed a number of factors for this, but high on the list was the state competitive youth sports scene.
Public health has identified at least 291 clusters associated with youth sports since January, which includes 1,091 cases. Indoor sports seem to have 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 a ban on wearing masks during sports due to the risk that competitors may strangle them.
In December, a high school wrestling tournament in Florida was the source Covid-19 an epidemic responsible for at least 79 cases and one death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, recent competitions have been well attended, participants say. Parents and coaches said they had calmed down with rigorous testing requirements that required any Covid-negative wrestler test within 72 hours of the competition.
“We didn’t have anyone who was positive or was exposed,” said Pete Israel, a wrestling coach at Salem High School. “If all these guys are in such close contact and don’t get them, is that really a problem?”
Israeli comments reflect the views of many involved in youth sports across the country.
A a recent survey The Aspen Institute and Utah State University found that while 66 percent of high school students said they were worried they might catch or transmit Covid through sports, 84 percent said they were interested at least as much as before the pandemic.
“In the U.S., the youth club sports scene returned fairly quickly – a year ago in many places,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society program.
Unlike most of Europe, youth sports play a major role in the development of professional talent in the United States, where professional teams often grab athletes at a young age.
“This is a highly commercialized industry – people will travel around the country to go to the next big event where they can be seen by a scout from college,” Solomon said. “There are families who will spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to introduce their child to sports.”
Some schools have allowed athletes to stay in virtual learning to reduce the risk of raising Covid and not allowing them to compete. The rest of their teams have lunch separately from the other students.
Many parents and coaches are furious at the suggestion that the virus is spreading through competition. They suggest that social events related to team sports could play a bigger role.
“I don’t know of a single case where Covid came from just playing sports,” said Holly Locke, an office manager at the Canton Soccer Club in Canton, Michigan, and the parent of two high school students. “Either it came from parents who hosted it from a friend or they got it out of school, and they happen to be athletes.”
Locke added: “We went to Florida for my son’s spring break with other school athletes. A lot of the kids hosted Covid down there – my son kept separate from the parties, but a lot of the kids hung out together and got sick. “
Despite this, Locke says she remains committed to her children who remain involved in their football and basketball teams.
“I didn’t think for a minute if it was worth it,” she said. “This was all my son was looking forward to for three years in high school – playing football and basketball in his senior year.
“He missed school, he missed coming home – a lack of sports would also drive a nail into the coffin.”
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