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Fall youth sports are back. COVID-19 is surging. Is it worth the risk to let your kids play?

kid wearing face mask and red shirt kicking soccer ball
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The fall sports season is getting started for high school athletes here in Michigan, but as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and the highly contagious delta variant spreads, there are questions about what youth sports will look like.

Dr. Arnold Monto is an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. He's also the acting chair of the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. He spoke with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou. 

The delta variant's effect

There hasn't been any specific guidance on fall sports from the Michigan High School Athletic Association about how to handle the fall sports season. 

Monto says he and other public health experts continue to urge that parents have children over the age of 12 vaccinated.

"Even before the delta variant appeared, it was clear that some youth sports, especially with close contact, increased the likelihood of transmission. But what has happened in the interim are two things. First of all, vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine was [authorized] down to age 12, and the delta variant came in. And for both reasons, we really think that young people in that age group should get vaccinated," he said.

Masking and other protocols

In its most recent guidance, the CDC recommended that coaches can limit contact in practices, have athletes wear masks when possible, and shorten seasons. However, the MHSAA announced this month that fall sports in Michigan would return to their traditional schedules and formats with regular crowd sizes. 

Monto sees that approach as "hopeful" because it doesn't account for sporadic outbreaks of the delta variant.

"'Being outdoors' assumes that you're not going to be right next to somebody else. I think you have to just use common sense and realize that it is closeness that makes the difference."

"I think it's likely we're going to see that. And I just hope people get vaccinated, young people in the age group where the vaccine is authorized, because we know this vaccine, while not necessarily preventing transmission, prevents severe disease," Monto said.

Most fall sports are played outdoors. Volleyball and swimming are two notable exceptions. Ann Arbor Public Schools has set up masking rules for athletes in those sports. But there have also been examples of outdoor COVID transmission at concerts where people were close together for extended periods of time.

Monto says being outside doesn't ensure complete safety for athletes.

"Transmission is really driven by closeness and duration of contact. [Advice about] 'being outdoors' assumes that you're not going to be right next to somebody else," he said. "I think you have to just use common sense and realize that it is closeness that makes the difference."

Risk vs. reward for kids

On Morning Edition, NPR recently reported on statistics that show children in the U.S. have gained weight at an unhealthy rate during the pandemic. That trend appears to have crossed racial and socioeconomic lines after in-person school and sports schedules got scrapped.

Sports can have huge benefits for kids physically and mentally. But is the risk of playing right now worth that reward?

Monto says yes, but with the right precautions.  

"I think in the younger age group it really is, because the likelihood of their getting severe infection is reduced. But it's very hard to think of some sports where there is not reasonable contact. And in an unmasked situation, I think in the under-12-year olds, we have a real issue and we're going to have to be more careful because they are getting infected. Some are getting more severe disease." 

Monto also believes now is the time to re-emphasize the importance of tracking individual cases.

"Contact tracing stopped being useful when we were having major spread. Now, that spread is being limited by a lot of people being vaccinated, contact tracing may help us to avoid some of these outbreaks. After all, if we have very little disease, even though we have some spread, we wouldn't be having that some of this discussion." 

Lauren Talley contribued to this story. 

Editor's note: Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of the page. 

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