The president of the Athletic Trainers’ Society of New Jersey says he’d need a crystal ball to determine whether or not a fall sports season will proceed as planned amid our ongoing battle against the coronavirus.
But the data culled from an informal online survey of 172 licensed high school athletic trainers around the state shows relatively low positivity numbers among student-athletes this summer and tells Kevin Briles that his group is uniformly in agreement with the COVID-19 protocols prescribed by the NJSIAA.
And as of now, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is moving forward with optimism on its plan to oversee a fall sports season in New Jersey.
Even still, those said numbers – for instance, 54 positive cases out of roughly 30,000 athletes/coaches, or just 0.0017 % – do not add up to zero.
“What I’m seeing from these numbers is the virus is still present and the role of the athletic trainers are in maintaining the safety of our state student-athletes is quite relevant,” Briles said. “As far as whether or not a season will occur, I think the more we wear our mask, the more we maintain social distancing and the more we engage in preventative behaviors, the better chance that’s going to occur.”
Of the 172 NJSIAA member schools that responded to the survey, 21, or 12.2 %, did not conduct the summer workouts on a formal basis during the allowable window of July 13 through Aug. 28. Twenty four of the 172 (13.95 %) indicated that summer workouts were conducted at times without an athletic trainer present, but also that 127 of the 172 (73.8 %) athletic trainers had provided some element of care during the workouts.
Care that meant largely using the NJSIAA protocols as the main guidepost for the athletic trainers. As an answer to the question, “What do you utilize as guidance for your return to sports plan?” 97.06 % (or 165) of the respondents cited the NJSIAA as the source. Ninety-nine also indicated that it followed the guidelines of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and 91 cited the New Jersey Department of Health.
Additionally, 116 (or 79.4 %) responded affirmatively to the survey question, “In your opinion, if you have been covering summer recess workouts. Has the graduated workout plan recommended by the NJSIAA been successful?”
That particular data brings a measure of comfort to Colleen Maguire, the Chief Operating Officer for the NJSIAA.
“NJSIAA recognizes the important role of the athletic trainers, and informally collected data of this type is certainly instructive,” she wrote in a statement.
“This said, our decision-making will continue to be guided by our partners at the New Jersey Department of Health, who are the official source of information on cases and trends,” Maguire went on. “In general terms, the results of this informal survey seem to indicate that the related protocols work and have been well received by our member schools.”
Briles also points to this aspect of the survey as especially significant.
“I think one of the more telling results of the NJSIAA is the source of direction for these schools,” he said. “They’re looking to the NJSIAA, their sports medicine advisory committee, their COVID Task Force.
“They’re looking for direction there and we’ll continue to collaborate with them as much as they want to help maintain a healthy environment for our student-athletes in New Jersey.”
An important distinction to make here between the summer workouts and the official start of practice for fall sports, Sept. 14, is that distinct workout groups, or pods, were created as a means to enhance the overall safety of the team and to simplify contact tracing in the event of suspected or positive cases. There also was no direct contact between team members during these sessions.
Incidentally, 36 of the 154 respondents (23 %) indicated that there was reason to shut down a pod because of exposure, and 19 (12 %) noted that the full program had to be suspended due to positive findings.
The whole complexion of workouts, of course, change as of Sept. 14 when teams launch full-squad practices in preparation of the season. The girls tennis season gets started Sept. 28, soccer, cross-country and field hockey Oct. 1, and football Oct. 2. Volleyball and gymnastics were postponed until the spring.
Seven of the 172 schools that responded had indicated that their schools had formally canceled sports for the fall season. Were those schools that canceled sports acting overcautiously, or will we find in weeks to come that they were simply ahead of the curve?
At least one medical expert has voiced his confidence that positivity numbers support the idea of conducting a fall scholastic sports season.
“As of yet, we don’t have any documented cases of player-to-player spread through contact sports,” said Dr. Damion Martins in an Aug. 21 question-and-answer session with the NJSIAA. He is Medical Director of Sports Medicine for Atlantic Health System, a member of the NJSIAA Medical Advisory Task Force and also New York Jets team physician.
“I think the virologists and the experts out there really believe this is really a factor of community spread. From that standpoint, I think we’re in a good place,” he said.
“When we look at what the professional sports are doing, what other sports are doing in general, athletes – even NCAA – are reporting lower than average numbers. The athletes tend to be less likely to be testing positive for this virus.”
And yet again, Briles would remind us that that encouraging number is not zero.
“We want our kids to play. We want our kids to participate in sports,” Briles said. “We just want to make sure the parameters are in place to make sure that can occur safely.”