Virus expert urges youth sports programs to shut down

Virus expert urges youth sports programs to shut down


By Greg Bach

Within the past several days the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have put their seasons on hold because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the NCAA cancelled March Madness along with its entire spring sports season.

Dr. Rishi Desai, a former Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer who investigated viral disease outbreaks at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recommends that those overseeing youth sports programs do the same for the coming weeks.

“I am a parent and also a pediatrician, and I would say at the moment it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to shut down any unnecessary and unneeded social interaction,” he says. “And that is a small investment.”

Desai is a pediatric infectious disease physician with a public health background who currently serves as the Chief Medical Officer at Osmosis, a digital health education hub designed to empower medical professionals, students in healthcare, and caregivers with the best learning experience possible. 

“There’s a very good chance that in your local community there’s COVID-19 circulating, so let’s get rid of the myth that getting it is no big deal because all the evidence we have says getting it is a big deal, even for young people,” says Desai, who has worked at Boston Children's Hospital, Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Stanford University. “Even though they may not die the severity of the illness is not trivial. The other issue to consider is that there are plenty of people who survive COVID-19 but end up with lung scarring, meaning permanent fibrosis in their lungs. For a young athlete that could be devastating. They can’t take those same deep breaths that they always used to be able to that affects every sport.”

Osmosis video on causes and symptoms

Osmosis video on diagnosing COVID-19

“This notion that if you are young and healthy you are absolutely fine is not true for two reasons,” Desai says. “One is that you might not die, which is true, but you could get a pulmonary disease, which is devastating. And also, it’s hard to imagine any young person out there who doesn’t have a person in their life who is over 60. It’s our job to think of this as a team sport – you are a human being first and you are an athlete second. And I think the young and healthy have to play their part on this team. They need to accept the fact that for a short while life will be a little bit less normal than it used to be. And if they accept that then that means they are not going to socialize as much, they’re not going to go and do the things that they otherwise would do. Because if they got sick, they put people that they know at risk. So if you think of it as a team sport you can’t put yourself above everyone else because you happen to want to do X, Y or Z.”

“These are challenging times, but for the safety of all the youth participants as well as the volunteers, parents and staff involved in programs, it is imperative that we adhere to the recommendations by health experts to shut down for the time being,” says John Engh, executive director of NAYS. “We also recommend that all live NAYS coaching clinics be postponed. During this down time, we encourage our members to take advantage of our numerous online offerings so that when youth sports programs resume they will be fully prepared to provide a safe and fun season for their teams.”  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next eight weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States. Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing. When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual.

“We haven’t had a federal mandate and in many places we don’t even have a strong state mandate,” Desai says. “So individuals are left to make decisions for themselves, and that’s a very awkward position to be in because it’s very hard to defend to families why your particular youth sports program is shut down when none of the others are shut down. It’s easier when that mandate comes from the top because we have to, but in a time of choice it’s important for us to all choose to do the right thing as well. The key here is don’t go around doing a bunch of stuff right now, it’s much more important if you’re healthy to hunker down. Don’t go around fraternizing and doing things you don’t need to be doing. It’s just not a good time for that.” 

And if precautions are taken now, then chances improve for lives to resume normal activity later this spring – including participating in youth sports programs that millions of children and teens enjoy.

“Our healthcare system is starting to see more and more people and there is the very real chance in the coming weeks that it’s going to get overrun,” Desai says. “And so what we need to do is to really follow the game plan of the successful countries where if you shut it down, and shut it down hard, then for a few weeks life is a bit boring, it’s a bit isolating, it’s a lot more Netflix. But what you end up with in a few weeks is you realize our daily counts of people getting sick has really dramatically gone down.”

Here's a look at what some national governing bodies have announced:

Little League Baseball

Little League, which operates more than 6,500 programs in more than 84 countries, recommended a temporary suspension of all activities until at least April 6.

US Youth Soccer

USYS, which has more than 3 million players between the ages of 5 and 19, has suspended all league program and conference activities through April 15. The organization will evaluate conditions on a bi-weekly basis.

USA Football

USA Football, the national governing body for football, has postponed all of its events through April 12.

U.S. Tennis Association

The USTA suspended all sanctioned products and events through at least April 20, including adult and junior tournaments, league tennis, junior team tennis, USTA schools programs, and wheelchair events.

USA Gymnastics

USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics, has canceled all of its sanctioned events through at least the end of March.

Coronavirus Health Safety

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