Can children play sports safely during a pandemic?
November 17, 2020
IN THE NEWS: Dr. Susan Huang, UCI Health medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention, tells the New York Times that children in team sports, especially indoor ones, should be wearing masks and observing other COVID-19 safety measures.
Masks are essential
With colder weather driving many team sporting activities indoors, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is greater, Huang said parents need to consider whether the facility is large and well ventilated enough, as well as how much physical contact the sport involves.
Above all, are players required — or able — to wear masks? “The mask, the hand hygiene, the distance [are] the trio that you really have to think about,” she said.
Masks may be problematic to wear for many sports. But whenever possible — and as much as possible — kids should wear masks when playing indoors, Huang said.
“That mask is one of the most protective things you can do. And children are very, very adaptable.”
Although her 13-year-old son’s cross-country team does not require masking, Huang said he wears a special running mask whenever he’s near other runners.
Other activities require different solutions.
She said the climbing facility where her 16-year-old daughter trains now requires everyone to use a liquid climbing chalk mixed with at least 70% ethanol to keep hands and hand grips free of the virus.
In addition, masks are required, everyone is checked for fever upon entry, and traffic arrows on the floor keep athletes moving in one direction.
When the mask comes off
The greatest risk may come when athletes remove their mask for a snack or water, especially near others, Huang said.
She recommends that coaches and team leaders avoid having a food table that would encourage athletes to congregate during training. Better to have individually packaged energy bars and bottled water available, and to ensure that players eat or drink only when they are at least six feet from others.
It was a mask mandate, along with widely available hand sanitizer and strict physical distancing rules, that gave Huang the confidence to let her daughter return to her climbing gym when it reopened.
Is your child responsible enough?
For Huang, there was another critical factor to weigh.
She needed to know that her daughter would take personal responsibility for her own safety. They sat down and played out different scenarios that might present a safety risk, including this one: If your closest friend is standing two feet from you and not wearing a mask, what do you say? Do you feel comfortable saying something?
That kind of response may be too much to expect of young children. “If they’re really little," Huang said, "the onus is on the team and the coach. “As they get older, choice becomes a part of the equation.”
Children also need to be able to understand that if someone in their family is immunocompromised or more likely to develop severe complications from COVID-19, the risk of participating in some close-contact sports "easily crosses the unacceptable barrier,” she said.
That's why Huang's children, who used to visit with their grandparents nearly every week before the pandemic, see them now only during Zoom calls and an occasional wave from a distance.
“I won’t take that risk, because it’s just not worth it," she said. "Once they incur risk through sports or school, they incur it for the family.”
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