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MHSAA Q&A regarding increased testing for Michigan high school athletes

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 20, 2021, 5:45 pm

They may have had an inkling that something similar was coming, but when the Michigan High School Athletic Association found out officially — with the rest of us — that there were to be new testing requirements for youth sports, they didn’t have a whole lot of specific information to provide about its implementation.

After Gov. Whitmer’s Friday news conference, announcing the plan to expand testing for athletes ages 13-19, the MHSAA held its own news conference Friday afternoon to share what it could about what it knew at that time. That came with the rather large caveat that the MHSAA leadership was still waiting on the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ guidance document, promised to be released Saturday, to fill in the blanks on its own understanding of the new testing requirements. 

With the full understanding that these answers may become dated, as soon as the MDHHS document is released, but in the effort of full disclosure of the questions from the media and answers given by MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, here is as close to a full transcription of Friday’s news conference.

Take from it what you will:

UYL’S INTRODUCTION:

The really quick summary on what we learned today, what we’ve already shared with our schools is that our winter sports and tournaments will proceed as scheduled. So this week, we have a lot of regional level competition going on and a lot of our sports next weekend on Saturday, which will be the 27th of March. a lion’s share of our finals are going to be conducted next Saturday, so a very busy next few weeks here. But headline number one is that winter sports and tournaments will precede as scheduled, they will proceed with the current face-mask requirements that have been in place now. for several weeks. There will be no change to wrestling, our wrestlers will continue to complete a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of competition. So when it deals with a great number of a winter sports and tournaments, no change. 

Effective April 2, that is a very key date that with the order that becomes effective next Monday, then beginning with April the second, all of our remaining winter sport athletes will need to complete a rapid antigen tests. So how many kids is this? Well, it’s less than 2000. It’s 896 wrestlers, because on April 2, we have our two days left of our individual wrestling finals. So the number of competitors it’s 896. And really, for that group of kids, there will be absolutely no change, our wrestlers will continue to test winning for hours before competition. So that group, there is no change. The only other winter group that would still be competing as of April, the 2nd will be all of our basketball teams that reach the quarterfinal level. So that’s 32 boys basketball teams, it’s 32 girls basketball teams a rough number, we’re talking 950 basketball players that would still be remaining in our tournament, the following week, that first full week of April to where they would have to complete rapid antigen testing. 

Now, unfortunately, some of your answers or some of your questions today, we simply do not have an answer for yet. So for example, Mark, how often will a basketball player have to test? We don’t have that answer yet. If you’ve read the order that was posted this morning, MDHHS will have updated testing guidance that will be released tomorrow on March the 20th. So many of the specific questions about testing the mechanics, we think that much of it will be similar to what was done in the fall pilot program, what’s been done now for weeks in wrestling. It will be the same general approach to our other sports, but we just don’t have those details yet, at this time, but that that essentially, how many winter kids are going to be affected by this. The answer is it’s less than 2,000. In truth be told it’s really 950 kids that have not been testing will be required to test during that last week. 

Now a bigger question that we’ve been getting from our schools all day is: effective also on April 2, the order would require testing of spring sport athletes. As many of you knows spring practices begin next week, Monday, March the 22nd. That’s a one-week delay from what was originally scheduled, and what the order says is that spring sport athletes would also have to test as well. ‘Mark does that mean all sports?’ Again, we’re going to wait on tomorrow’s testing.document. You know, we don’t know yet if that is going to, in fact, be all spring sports. For example, are golfers and tennis players going to be required to test? Is this only going to deal with contact sports? Those are some of the questions yet that we not have answers for. But it does (say) with our spring athletes, testing as of April 2 date, will be required. Again, we just don’t have the information yet on frequency, or any of those requirements. 

From the order, it does reference that as of April 2, athletes from the age bracket of 13 to 19, will be required to test. So what that would mean is that isn’t just high school level teams, but then would also be junior high/middle school teams. … And by the way, some of our highest participation numbers at the junior high level are in the spring when it comes to middle school, track and field. So for those middle school kids who are 13, what the order leads us to believe right now is that they would have to test. From what we also understand is that this would be a requirement across the board, not just in school sports, that any youth club travel organizations that serve youth, from ages 13 to 19 … as of April 2, they would also have to complete a testing program. From what we understand right now at least is it’s in the school space, that the task will continue to be provided free of charge by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the testing that has happened going back to the full pilot (program) in January, all of the supplies have been provided to our schools free of charge. And we anticipate that not changing. 

But I guess just to kind of quickly recap here with the opening. And then we want to dive right in your questions. Winter Sports tournament and calendars, we’ll proceed with no changes. Effective April, the second, our remaining winter sports will have to test him by April 2, all of our winter sports are done, except for two days of wrestling finals in the quarterfinals, my final and final level in basketball. And as I said earlier, that in total is less than 2,000 students in an effective April 2, the order does require testing of spring sport athletes as well. We don’t know the frequency, we don’t know those requirements, yet until the MDHHS gets that additional guidance posted to their site someday, sometime during the day tomorrow. So that’s the quick summary of what we learned today. 

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QUESTION AND ANSWER SEGMENT

Q: Does this apply to any coaches or personnel that have either been vaccinated or not been vaccinated and also with 16-and-up (soon) being eligible to be vaccinated? If they’re vaccinated, will they have to be tested?

A: Those are all questions that we hope will get addressed in the March 20 order, or actually the guidance on the testing program that will get released tomorrow, when it comes to who must have when you read today’s order, it’s quite specific that it talks about testing being required for those in the age bracket of 13 to 19. So reading that today would would lead us to believe that that is going to require that participants test. But it does not appear that coaches would be required to test (or) you know, game management staff officials, any of those individuals. So just taking it based on today’s order, it appears that it’s students are the ones required the test, but again, we’ll see what’s in the testing document that will be released tomorrow.

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Q: What would happen if someone had already had the virus has recovered and then test positive?

A: So going back to the pilot program in January, which has also been used in the wrestling community, is that any student in the last 90 days that has had a positive COVID diagnosis that they are exempt from the rapid testing program for a period of three months, so that has been quite standard. And actually … remember, the pilot program wasn’t just students, but that was anybody part of the team group. So that was students, that was adults. Anyone that did have a positive COVID test within 90 days, they were exempt from the rapid testing. That’s been the same approach used for wrestling here this winter. We’ll take a look at the testing document tomorrow to see if that continues to be the case. I do know that just before we started, the CDC was holding a press conference and they know that they were addressing several issues in terms of their guidance as it relates to schools and quarantining. And what’s the status of those that have been vaccinated? So again, information here that will help to confirm in the coming days.

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Q: What about sports that are out of season football team doing some weight training and workouts now — will they need to test?

A: So everything that we have done to this point is all of the current mask rules for all out-of-season activity had to be followed. So the masking requirements of our winter sports, say over the last month, out-of-season spring activity or out-of-season fall activity, had to follow those same things. What will be key in tomorrow’s guidance about testing is to see what the requirements and the frequency is. You know, for example, one question that we have to get answered is, if you listen to the press conference this morning, I believe Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer referenced that testing it did take place before practices and games in then soon after Dr. (Joneigh) Khaldun reference testing being done on a weekly basis. So if it’s on a weekly basis, does that cover out-of-season activity? If it’s only prior to competition, that obviously would address in-season athletes, those that are just working out and practicing all the season? That could be handled differently? Again, I hate to repeat this answer again. But that will be one of the specific questions that we’re hoping the testing guidance released tomorrow will address.

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Q: What will the cost of the testing be?

A: Yeah, the cost is zero. We have been very grateful to MDHHS for supplying those tests. It hasn’t just been for our wrestling schools. It’s been for any schools that wanted to test athletes and other sports, they have made those available going back to January free of charge, we understand that that will be the practice moving forward, which give credit to our state health department for that, when it comes to frequency. We don’t have that answer yet. What will the frequency look like for that last week of our basketball tournament quarterfinals to the finals? What will the frequency look like when it comes to spring sports? And the answer will hopefully have over the weekend. Certainly by early next week.

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Q: How feasible is this to implement or has the governor just placed a major hurdle in front of all high school sports?

A: You know, going back to late December, that we’re going to do whatever it takes for our kids to be able to play and play safely. You know, going back to late December, when we talked about the pilot program for the fall, the logistics and the hurdles in front of that seem quite daunting. But we were able to pull that off and pull that off quite quickly. Wrestling is really gone very smoothly over the last two months plus with the testing component in place. You know, certainly with the cost being the biggest thing that’s been eliminated, we are a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-the-job-done organization. And, you know, our goal has been three seasons, to give our fall kids a season that got to the finish line, that same goal has been in place for a winter and that finish line is getting closer and closer every day. And that is not going to change for spring. And if that means that we have to put in some some extra work and effort to make testing and to make it happen safely and effectively, then that’s what we’re going to do. At the end of the day, we got into this business to give kids opportunities — with the testing requirements, that’s what we’re going to do here moving forward.

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Q: Today youth sports were noted as something (partly) responsible for the rise in positive cases. In the past, you’ve always said the numbers show the opposite. In your opinion, what changed and how much responsibility should the athletic community take in this hike?

A: Governor Whitmer can speak for herself. I’m not going to try and, you know, support or refute that, you know, we’re in we’re in good communication with MDHHS. When we’ve had cases when it’s dealt with the variants, their team has reached out to us. You know, it’s been a challenge. I think for all of us to get data on outbreaks, to get data on exactly what was the source of the positive cases. You look at here in Michigan, the way that our numbers have gone the last month and they’re heading in the wrong direction. I think when you look at those same numbers from the same source in the states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, who have all been playing winter indoor sports during the same time — in Indiana and Ohio, they’ve not only been playing winter indoor sports since November, but they’ve been doing that without masks — and those numbers in those surrounding states are roughly half of what ours are today. So that to just say, in general, that because the case numbers have gone up, although it has to be sports, there’s been a lot of other things over the last six to eight weeks, that have also been amended in the orders, whether it’s indoor dining, or different businesses, in those kinds of things. Which, again, if there were specific metrics, with these different kinds of entities, I think those would have been shared, I do know in the athletic realm, that with the requirements that are in places, when students have tested positive, those have to be reported, when a student has a positive test in their part of an athletic team. Those are going to be known, those are going to be reported to the local health department, they’re then going to get involved with the contact tracing that comes with that. And, you know, we’ve had a lot of our school teams that have had to miss games, or they’ve had to pause, because it’s been one positive case and due to contact tracing in winter sports, that’s what local health departments have ever required. So I think our case numbers going up. Can you pinpointed on one specific area? I think it’s a lot of different areas. In we knew that we would have to manage some positive cases, when more sectors of our society have reopened, when more face-to-face learning in schools has really reemerged here in 2021. And that that I think, is just a very honest assessment. But again, you know, sports is the key, I would just simply ask the question for what, what is Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio doing to play and continue their athletics without seeing the increases that we’ve had in Michigan?

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Q: What’s the MHSAA’s response to changes in Ohio’s quarantine policy, which doesn’t require athletes in spring sports contact trace from a classroom setting to quarantine?

A: So I am not going to speak much on the specifics of Ohio’s approach because I just don’t have that information at my fingertips. I can share that probably the biggest challenge with winter sports has been contact tracing. You’ve got some county health departments that are handling this in different ways. In some cases, it’s been neighboring health departments. In one county, it’s a 14-day quarantine for anyone who participated in the contest where someone later had a positive test, and then you’ve got other very close localities to where their quarantine has been 10 days. We’ve been told by our schools that in some respects, they’ve contacted their local health department, and depending on what staff person you talk to, you might get a different answers as well. So I understand our local health departments are overwhelmed with the number of cases and the number of contact tracing. It has to go on, I can tell you that our school administrators who have had to go back and contact trace whether it’s been through the academic day, whether it’s been through all sorts of extracurriculars, that has been a real challenge. And, you know, it’d be wonderful if the CDC would give some clear guidance, that with, you know, all education-related positive cases here is the contact tracing requirements, and the timeframes or if nothing else, even within our state so that each local health department was handling that in the same way, I just feel that it’s created a lot of confusion for many of our schools just getting different answers based on either the part of the state that you’re in, or even the the individual that you were working with.

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Q: You expressed last month the new MDHHS director had good communication and dialogue with the MHSAA. Has that dialogue continued to be positive since winter sports have resumed?

A: Yes, we are very thankful to director (Elizabeth) Hertel for the really the the improved communication, the fact that we’re able to share information and you know, things that we’re seeing things that we’re hearing from our schools, and that has gone vice versa. So no, the again, we’re just thankful that the communication continues to be improved over what it had been.

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Q: Does it make it easier and how much easier that there will be a limited number of winter sports participants teams remaining, come on April 2?

A: It will certainly make it much more efficient. You know, again, we’re talking about winter athletes, we’re talking less than 2,000 kids in half of that 2000 have been testing on a regular basis going back to February. So the lessons that we’ve learned going back to January through testing is certainly the bigger the testing pool, just the more challenges you’re going to have in terms of logistics of getting test and the reporting and the reporting and in just, you know, the individuals needed for that. And again, that’s why we were really looking forward to learning more about what the expectations are going to be with spring, because that those are going to be in many of our schools quite significant numbers. And we’ll see what that guidance on spring leads us.

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Q: Will testing override the current contact tracing protocol that is knocking teams out after playing a team with a positive test?

A: That we we don’t know what that answer is going to be moving forward. I can tell you that in wrestling, when a wrestler has had a positive case, even though all other wrestlers have been testing, the local health departments have still been enforcing either a 10-day or a 14-day quarantine period, depending on what they were doing. So at least up to this point on testing has not superseded the quarantine or the pause requirements. So, until we get information to the contrary, we would expect that would be the the approach is we keep going forward.

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Q: Are spring sports has still set to start (practicing) March 22?

A: All practices for spring will start next week. You know, one early break that we’re catching is it looks like we are getting a bit of an early spring, even checked earlier this week. Marquette, Houghton and Calumet are all talking temperatures in the 40s next week, which for a lot of our teams, whether it’s a track team, they’re going to be able to get outdoors. And we all know that when it comes to COVID, there is less risk when you’ve got groups outdoors versus indoors. So know what the start of spring next week we’re just hopeful that is many teams as possible on can be outdoors right away on that first day of practice.

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Q: Does the MHSAA game cancellation, rescheduling policy change with anything said today?

A: No. 

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Q: Do you feel this is trending in the direction of another shutdown? There are some coaches who are concerned about that?

A: That we haven’t gotten any of that indication yet from MDHHS. I think when you go back to the experience of the pilot testing program in January, which included indoor sports, which included contact sports, I think that that data does show that sports can be done and it can be done safely. So that you know that that is then what the data has continued to show I realize that schools have reported more positive cases. Again, as I mentioned earlier, if you’re part of an athletic team that gets reported and recorded — our schools knew that when you brought kids and staff back for in person learning, we would have, you know more positive cases until we reach our herd immunity, which everybody’s talking is that magic 70 percent vaccination level. So we’re continuing to manage the positive cases continuing to follow all of that local health department guidance. And that will be what we continue to do here is each week goes by.

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Q: Any concerns about having enough tests to consistently follow through on increased testing?

A: Well, we’ve heard from MDHHS that they have the testing capacity is available. We have been encouraging our schools not just the requirements in wrestling, but any other winter teams over the last several weeks to test it to track your kids. And we’ve been told from the health department that testing availability is not an issue and again, those are provided this schools free of charge which which is really a good thing to to keep as many people safe as possible.

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Q: Do you get a sense the governor is considering pausing winter tournaments and delaying spring it all: 

A: Have not gotten that sense at all. Not speculating, just simply stating we have not been told that by either of those offices today.

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Q: Baseball and softball are more socially distanced — will players need to wear masks in those sports?

A: So we’re still trying to get some more answers when it comes to masking in spring sports. Really all but two of our spring sports are non-contact: boys lacrosse is a contact sport, as is girls soccer. Girls lacrosse, different playing rules than boys lacrosse, not a contact sport. And you can even make the case that boys lacrosse, while a contact sport, is much different than football. The contact is really from a distance of a few feet away. It’s generally the contact is with a stick, you know different than the hand-to-hand, facemask-to-facemask, contact in football. So those two contact sports would require to be masked. A sport like tennis and golf, and even track and field where you’re able to exercise outdoors, keeping six feet of distance, that masks are not required. Track and field is another sport, other than a relay to where you’ve got occasional and fleeting seconds with teammates, that there’s never a time in a track meet to where you’re face to face with an opponent. So we’ll continue to really take our spring on the sport-by-sport basis. And again, we’ll follow what the MDHHS requires, when it comes to masking. You know, in the original question baseball and softball does a catcher get treated differently given their proximity to the hitter than say the left fielder does? Who is out there covering, you know, amongst the acres, but an awful lot of green grass around them when they’re out playing defense?

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Q: Do you disagree with the theory that youth sports are creating an uptick in cases in the state?

A: I think there’s a lot of things, as I mentioned earlier, that have been reopened and re engaged over the last several weeks. Again, certainly there have been more positive cases in our schools and kids who have been on athletic teams. You know, listening to a lot of our school administrators, there’s still, there’s still some skepticism that this is being transmitted during a basketball game or practice. And it’s more likely when you’re getting kids who want to Friday or Saturday night after the game after practice, who are hanging out in social settings that that’s something we’ve continued to hear over and over from our school administrators. And again, I pointed to the success of our three border states who have been playing winter sports going back to November, they have not seen the increases that we have recently. So again, epidemiologist or folks who are tracking more carefully, I think, could speak more to that topic.

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Q: Was the MHSAA aware of this possibility before this morning?

A:We were hearing that yesterday that there could be some additional guidance coming in, it could mean some expanded testing. But in terms of the details, those are all things that we’ve learned here during the day to that.

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Q: Your thoughts for teams and players who were forced to shut down in this tournament play? How tough is that for those teams and players to miss the postseason? 

A: It’s awful. It’s awful. The reason that we have been advocating for safe participation going back to August, is the fact that we think that kids deserve seasons, and kids deserve closure of those seasons. You know, we had some individuals going back to the fall to where they they were not positive themselves that they had a connection to a different positive case that due to quarantining, they missed, for example, the regional round in a sport like cross country or miss the regional round in the sport or couldn’t come back for the tennis finals that they qualified for. What’s really been difficult is for our winter teams that have had to quarantine because an opponent on on another team and a positive case, in the county health department’s approach has been well, anyone who was in the game regardless, if you were within six feet of any individual that they’re just quarantining the entire team, just out of an abundance of caution and safety. That’s been really tough for some of our schools. You know, we’ve worn masks. And, you know, we’re hoping that when you went back and did the contact tracing, that that would be part of the of the elements that that would be considered, but whenever teams are — again, the timing here is everything — and for teams that have had to quarantine or pause within the last week and what that’s meant for the tournament experience. It’s been, it’s been heartbreaking. I also know that we’ve had some schools that have voluntarily paused or stopped playing games, just to give themselves — for example, a basketball team, or several basketball teams that did not play games this week, just for the concern that they could play an opponent that might have a positive case, which could then have some implications for them when it came to quarantining and contact tracing. So these have not been easy days for anyone in high school sports administration. Yeah, there have been challenges here in the building. But the challenges have been far greater in all of our schools and just can’t thank our athletic directors, our coaches, our kids and our parents enough for the way that so many of them have tried to do the right thing and followed all the expectations have been exactly what’s been asked. And we’re just hoping that those who have done all the right things, that they’re going to be able to reach the finish lines here over the next three months.