Back to school: A climb in COVID-19 cases casts shadow over L.A. County middle and high school sports programs


With a new spike in COVID-19 cases, is the wide world of high school and middle school sports in jeopardy once again?

Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, MPH, feels that school sports programs can still function. For that to happen, though, coaches and administrators need to encourage their athletes to follow strict safety guidelines and get vaccinated.

"The misconception among many athletes is that because they're healthy and physically active, that COVID won't affect them seriously,” says Dr. de St. Maurice, who is also the co-chief infection prevention officer at UCLA Health. “However, we know they could end up with long-term symptoms that might not land them in the hospital, but it might affect their school performance or athletic performance."

Fortunately, the rise in COVID-19 numbers has so far not caused any professional sports leagues to shut down as was the case in 2020. Dr. de St. Maurice believes middle and high school sports could see an entire season as well this year.

Ultimately, though, that outcome will be determined by the number of athletes who are vaccinated, she says.

“That’s one of the key points. Coaches need to stress the importance of vaccinations to their athletes – vaccinations not just among the athletes, but for coaching staff too,” Dr. de St. Maurice says.

How can we ensure the safety of young athletes against COVID-19?

Dr. de St. Maurice believes that, despite the rising case numbers, varsity sports programs can ensure a safe season as long as schools follow specific protocols such as:

  • Encouraging all athletes over age 12 to get vaccinated;
  • Making sure all athletics staff, including coaches and trainers, are vaccinated;
  • Wearing masks when possible;
  • Removing any athletes with symptoms to prevent outbreaks;
  • Quarantining athletes who have been exposed to COVID-19.

Why is it important to vaccinate all athletes at the middle and high school level?

The answer is to prevent wider outbreaks to other students, their families and school staff.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that documented a Florida county wrestling tournament in December, 2020, that caused a massive COVID-19 outbreak among students and staff at multiple schools in the area. It resulted in the cancellation of all indoor and outdoor sporting events in that county through the end of 2020.

Florida public officials attributed the outbreak to an individual infected with COVID-19 who had attended multiple wrestling events within two weeks. Media outlets reported that the unnamed county in the CDC report was Polk County, which sits between Orlando and Tampa in Central Florida.

Dr. de St. Maurice hopes that Los Angeles County sports programs don't experience what the Polk County programs went through. If a school learns that an athlete has tested positive, they should take immediate action, she says.

What is the policy for school sports programs moving forward?

The CDC has not updated its protocols for school sports programs, but Dr. de St. Maurice says coaches and athletes should adhere to what is currently in place.

In the spring, public health officials relaxed restrictions that limited recreational sports teams to competing only with others in the same county. However, those relaxations were retired according to a County of Los Angeles Department of Health document outlining protocols for youth and adult recreational sports leagues.

In addition, county officials have reintroduced mandatory masking in indoor public spaces following the rise in case numbers.

It is uncertain if Los Angeles’ reinstated mask mandate will mean stricter guidelines for school sports programs, but Dr. de St. Maurice says certain rules must be enforced to halt any potential outbreaks.

“If we can control outbreaks in the school sports program, then we can control them from affecting the schools. If we can control the outbreaks in schools, then we can control them from hurting the sports programs.”

If you have questions about getting your child vaccinated or concerns about their participation in sports this year due to COVID-19, contact your primary health physician.