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With numbers of prep sports outbreaks, cases rising, Gov. Whitmer announces testing program for youth athletes starting April 2

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, March 19, 2021, 11:31 am

While rising numbers of cases and outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with youth sports won’t yet bring about another ‘pause,’ there will be another tactic employed to combat the spread of the virus in the prep sports setting: Expanded testing of high school athletes. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in association with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, announced Friday morning that, starting April 2, high school athletes, ages 13-19, will be required to test weekly prior to practices and competition.

“We must be wary of the rising COVID numbers, too. Cases have been rising since late February. Thankfully, deaths have remained low, and on Wednesday, we had zero new reported deaths for the first time in months, which is excellent news. … A significant number of the recent cases have been attributed to high school athletics,” Whitmer said in Friday’s news conference. “Last week’s numbers are a reality check, that COVID-19 is not yet behind us. We may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel, and the only way out is to move forward, and do it together. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread, and eliminate the virus as quickly as possible. If we want to continue making steps forward, we need to make smart choices to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.”

Michigan High School Athletic Association held a 1 p.m. news conference (via Zoom) to discuss the impact of the new revision of the epidemic order, which goes into effect on March 22 (although the testing portion is not required to begin for another 11 days), but executive director Mark Uyl did not have much detail to add to what had been covered in the governor’s news conference. The MHSAA is waiting on a guidance document from the MDHHS that is due out Saturday (March 19) to lay out the specifics of the plans.

What Uyl did know, though, was that the athletes still playing winter sports after April 2 would have to complete some sort of rapid antigen testing to finish their seasons, but noted, as they learned with the completion of the fall postseasons under the pilot testing program, smaller numbers help with implementation. 

Of the 12 winter sports conducted in Michigan, only three — boys and girls basketball, as well as individual finals for wrestling — extend past the April 2 start date for this testing plan. Wrestlers were already required to test prior to competition under the revision of the pandemic order that allowed the winter contact sports to begin in February. 

Boys and girls bowling, competitive cheer, gymnastics, hockey, boys and girls skiing and boys and girls (UP only) swimming all have their state finals prior to that start date.

Uyl noted that after April 2, fewer than 2,000 athletes will be remaining in winter sports — 896 wrestlers who have qualified for individual finals, along with roughly 950 basketball players on the 32 girls and 32 boys teams that reach the quarterfinals. 

“It will certainly make it much more efficient. With respect to winter athletes, we’re talking about less than 2,000 kids, and half of that 2,000 has been testing, going back to February. The lessons that we learned, going back to January, for testing, is that certainly the bigger the testing pool, the more challenges you’re going to face, just in terms of logistics and getting tests, the recording and the reporting, and the individuals needed for that. 

“ I think, 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 a 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. 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, and with the testing requirements, that’s what we’re going to do here moving forward.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical officer, ran through the list of COVID numbers that have been rising since mid-February:

• Case rates have been increasing for the past four weeks, up 77 percent from mid-February to 173 per million.

• Cases are increasing in all age groups, but the 10-19 age group has seen the largest jump.

• The percentage of positive cases, up 177 percent over the four weeks since mid-February, is at 6.2 percent.

• The number of outbreaks in the state increased by nine percent over the last week, to 645. 

“Due to the many outbreaks linked to sports, this new order requires youth athletes, age 13 to 19 years old, to take part in a weekly testing program to participate in athletic practices or competitions. This is important, because we’ve seen so many outbreaks associated with sports teams, and we want to identify as many cases as soon as possible, and prevent spread,” Khaldun said. “Last week, for the first time since we started tracking outbreaks, those in K-12 settings exceeded the number in long-term care facilities. Now, this is a testament to how well we have done in vaccinating our staff and residents in long-term care facilities, but it also speaks to the risk we see with some of the activities that children in this age group are engaging in. Many of the outbreaks are related to sports. In January and February, local health departments identified 315 outbreaks associated with different sports teams, related to clubs, schools and recreational sports. This is concerning. Outbreaks in this age group can have impact on our children’s education. The most important thing we want for all our children is in-person learning, and not having school closures, or having students out of school because of COVID-19, or needing to quarantine, because they have been exposed.”

Unlike the fall and winter, when rising numbers led to ‘pauses’ in action, or a postponement to their beginning, the governor indicated there aren’t plans to shut prep athletics down at this point. 

“At this point in time, we’re not announcing any restrictions. We don’t have any plans to do that at this juncture. I will say though, that we have the tools to fight this virus: a mask, social distancing, hand washing, vaccinations. These are the tools that will help us be successful. I know it feels like universally people wanted to reengage a lot of the things that have come online in the last few weeks,” Whitmer said. “We also knew when we did that, we would increase the risk of spread, and that’s what we’re seeing. … If we all take our personal responsibility here, we can keep these things engaged, and do it safely, and make progress toward the ultimate, which would be spending the Fourth of July together, and enjoying it. What we really need is everyone to do their part, to continue to take it seriously, not quit now, because we’re so close.”

The ramped up testing program will require the purchase of an exponentially larger supply of rapid tests by the state, something which the governor noted, while urging the legislature to release federal funds that have been frozen there. Khaldun said that the state does have some tests, and the fact that testing has been employed before — with the remaining fall sports of football, volleyball and girls swimming, to get them through their playoffs, and again with wrestling in the winter —is an argument for its feasibility, if the supply of tests is there. 

“In that timeframe (until April 2), we will be working not just with our schools, but our clubs, to make sure that they know what they need to do. We’re already actually testing many sports teams, and working with schools to test. So it is feasible. We do have many antigen tests. We do have the ability to purchase more, if we have the funding,” Khaldun said. “But I do think it’s feasible, and it’s a way we’ll be able to identify cases as quickly as possible, and not have more outbreaks come amongst our sports teams.”