COVID-19, Kids, and Sports
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released guidance on safe return to sports for children and adolescents in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AAP wrote the advice specifically for pediatricians to help inform their patients’ parents and caregivers. Still, it includes an array of tips and considerations useful to anyone wondering how to safely return to sports. It is crucial to remember, however, that the AAP is a national authority on pediatric health. Its recommendations should be viewed as general guideposts, but each athlete’s personal, sport-type, state, county, and even household circumstances must factor into the return-to-play equation.
First and foremost, it is imperative to consider whether the athlete or a household family member has any underlying health condition(s) that may put them at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Likewise, parents or caregivers should take additional considerations for those athletes who reside with one or more elderly or senior individuals. Current data indicate that older individuals are at a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 than children or adolescents. In fact, the vast majority of medical data currently available to us indicates that children under the age of 10 appear to be less likely to develop severe illness from COVID-19, or to readily transmit that illness to others.
The geographical location of where the athlete resides or will be playing is also a factor of great significance in evaluating return-to-play. For example, as of this writing, South Carolina has a much higher COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people than North Dakota does. So, the AAP guidance is subjective to where the athlete lives or will be playing and the transmission rate in that area. Consider too the sport being played. For example, golf has a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission among individuals than indoor hockey or indoor basketball.
The above are just a few of the considerations to take when evaluating whether a young athlete should return to sports. One question we hear quite often: do the benefits of playing sports during the pandemic outweigh the risks? Again, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, unfortunately. To be sure, the benefits of youth sports are clear and well-document in decades of clinical research. But when considering risks associated with playing sports and COVID-19 transmission, we don’t yet have enough research to arrive at an obvious answer. That’s why each athlete’s family must consider its unique set of circumstances. We know that can sound unfair when some states’ athletic programs are carrying on with their seasons, while others may have been wholly shuttered since March 2020.
So, armed with a good understanding of how COVID-19 moves and the risks associated with the variety of factors that come into play with it, what are the next steps if you decide to allow your athlete to move forward with a sports season? First, the preseason physical is a must – pandemic or not. But especially if your child has had more time off than usual or has been less active during this time, a visit with their physician is imperative. At this appointment, the doctor can evaluate your athlete while discussing the importance of a gradual return to sport to minimize injury risk. Your doctor will also provide tips for virus mitigation strategies and can help you understand what to look for in the athletic programs your considering. For example, do all coaches, athletes, and spectators wear a cloth face covering at every sporting event? Is equipment adequately disinfected after each use? Does the organization have a COVID-19 protocol in place? Once you’ve said yes to a return to sports, these are critical next-step questions that help minimize virus transmission risk for your athlete and those around them.
In this blog, we have focused on how to rejoin organized sports during this pandemic, but I want to remind parents that there are also a number of other creative ways to help keep your child and the entire family active. Family walks around the neighborhood after dinner, weekend hikes or bike rides at a nearby park or trail system, or even jumping jack challenges, are all some great ways to stay active, healthy, and connected.
It is an unparalleled time to be a young athlete in America. But armed with a solid understanding of the risks unique to your athlete and family and a reliable pre-sports physical with your child’s trusted physician, you’ll have a good set of information from which to make an informed decision for your athlete.