There’s a clear consensus that high school sports will be played this fall. That’s more than can be said for this time last year when conditioning stopped and started and COVID-19 cases ticked upward by late summer, throwing the season into disarray.
What affect COVID-19 and the rising cases of the delta variant will have on this season, however, remains to be seen. Having managed through a spring season with a significant drop in COVID cases at the time, mixed with the availability of a vaccine, there is reason for optimism as high school football teams can return to the field for conditioning Monday and begin full-contact practice by the end of the week.
“We are going to play,” Glenn Lungarini, the executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference told Hearst Connecticut Media last week. “OTAs start Thursday. We start conditioning week on Monday and we’re ready to go. We’re looking forward to this year.”
The CIAC, the governing body for high school athletics in the state, released its guidance for athletes and coaches this past week while strongly recommending students get vaccinated. Indoor activities will require masks — just as returning to school indoors will require masks at least until Sept. 30, per Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order. But the guidance does allow for football to be played this year after the season was canceled in 2020.
David Banach, a UConn Health epidemiologist and head of infection prevention, said there was reason for optimism around football.
“With football, the contact periods are relatively brief during plays, and it’s outdoors which puts it at a lower risk compared to indoor sports,” Banach said this past week. “It’s difficult to make any definite conclusions about that, but the fact that it’s outdoors and players have transient contact on the field makes it lower risk.”
Banach’s concern would center on places like locker rooms, team meeting rooms, or even car rides where team members were in close contact and especially if unmasked.
“Any attempt to take those group meetings outdoors is important, especially while the weather is still nice in the fall,” Banach said.
Coaches surveyed by Hearst Connecticut Media last week largely said they have made adjustments — from mask-wearing to distancing — in order to play and ensure any risk of contracting the virus is limited. Several coaches said they have talked with players about getting vaccinated or at least speaking with family members about the decision. Some teams in the state met late last week for some kind of team activity before they begin training this week.
With a vaccines in place, the rules are different than last fall. Students who are vaccinated will not have to quarantine should they contract COVID-19 so long as they remain asymptomatic and wear a mask. Students who are not vaccinated, however, must quarantine for at least 10 days and test negative, or quarantine for 14 days. The CIAC also recommends students getting tested weekly if unvaccinated.
“Everybody’s goal is to get the kids back in school safely, in person, and playing their sports,” said Allison Crepeau, a sports and medicine specialist at Connecticut Children’s in Hartford. “To be realistic, it would be good for teams to understand, for high school athletes, some people may be vaccinated and some people are not, and in those off-times, everybody should be wearing masks and minimizing handshakes, contact, huddles and times when people are close together when they don’t have to be.”
The delta variant
The potential spread of the COVID-19 delta variant will be key to monitor, Crepeau said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the variant “more transmissible than the common cold and influenza,” in addition to other COVID strains. Research about the variant is ongoing, but researchers at Yale Medicine say the best way to protect against the variant is to get vaccinated.
“We know the delta variant is more contagious and that even people who are vaccinated can get it and unfortunately still spread it, but the trend is people who have it and are vaccinated are less sick and avoid hospitalization,” Crepeau said.
“The ideal situation is to have everybody who can be vaccinated, get vaccinated. There’s no mandate right now and that is a personal choice, but it does help protect the students,” she continued.
Of the 286,082 children in the 12-17 age group eligible for the vaccine, 140,802 have been vaccinated, according to state data. That amounts to about 49% of those eligible who have been inoculated. The towns with the highest vaccination rates for that age group tend to be among the wealthiest, including Greenwich, Westport and Darien. For all age groups, much of the eastern part of the state, in addition to some cities (Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury), have lower vaccination rates than other parts of the state.
Banach, the UConn doctor, added that getting “as many athletes vaccinated as possible helps reduce the risk both to individuals and also of there being transmission occurring on a team”
“We’re seeing individuals who are vaccinated develop infection, but the symptoms are overwhelmingly very mild, particularly in younger, healthier individuals who are vaccinated,” Banach said. “So the vaccines do protect against more severe illness.”
Connecticut has seen limited hospitalizations of teenagers when it comes to the delta variant, Crepeau said. Still, there are concerns about what she has seen in other parts of the country.
“We have a good vaccination rate so it’s still at a dull roar in Connecticut, but talking to friends in Florida and places like that, their hospitals are filled, even at the children’s hospitals,” she said.
Most fall sports will be played outside: football, soccer, cross country, field hockey. But volleyball and girls swimming will be inside.
Volleyball players are required to wear masks during play and swimmers are required to wear masks while on the pool deck.
“The masks for indoor sports can have a role,” Banach said. “For sports like volleyball, during play people are pretty distant but then huddling up and those close interactions would be a bit of a higher risk and the use of masks would help mitigate that.”
Fan attendance for those sports, and capacity for the other sports outside, may be decided by local school districts.
Sean Patrick Bowley contributed to this report.