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Contact Tracing Student-Athletes Presents Unique Challenges

Missing class time due to COVID-19 exposure is unsettling for any student, but it can be doubly disruptive for athletes and their teammates.

No coach wants to have to quarantine an entire team, or even a handful of players.

It’s no wonder, then, that athletic departments will try almost anything to keep their players protected and in school. Last fall, a school district in Washington state went as far as requiring football and volleyball players to wear ankle monitors that measured how long they were in close contact with teammates during practices to help with contact tracing efforts. The intent of the controversial program was to limit the number of student-athletes who had to quarantine in the event of positive cases on the team.

While ankle bracelets may seem a bit extreme, it’s understandable for teams to want to take any measures possible to limit the spread of COVID. Because the members of sports teams spend so much time close together, they are often subject to stricter protocols and guidelines than the general student body. Athletes might be required to test regularly for COVID-19, even if that policy doesn’t apply to all students.

In working with colleges, universities, and K-12 schools, PubSEG deals with cases involving student-athletes on a regular basis and is accustomed to the unique challenges that those situations present.

One of the biggest challenges is pushback from coaches, who obviously don’t want to lose players before a big game (or any game, really). We’ll occasionally hear back from coaches questioning our quarantine recommendations. Sometimes, they’ll even deny that certain players were close contacts, even if our tracing efforts reveal otherwise.

But our guidelines don’t change just because there’s a game on the calendar that afternoon. While we’re understanding of a coach’s predicament, our commitment to each school we partner with is to help keep all students and staff as safe as possible.

Fortunately, there are steps that schools can take to limit the spread of COVID among their student- athletes. Here are three of them:

1. Increased testing

The CDC recommends screening testing at least once a week for athletes in high-risk sports such as football, hockey, and wrestling. In areas with substantial community transmission, the CDC recommends the testing take place twice a week. The testing should also include coaches, trainers, and anybody else who routinely comes in close contact with the athletes.

Identifying positive cases early can help prevent the virus from spreading to other members of the team. The other advantage is that negative test results can provide peace of mind, at least temporarily.

2. Splitting up practices

The more people in close contact at any one time, the greater the risk of COVID-19 spread. By splitting team members and coaches into multiple groups during practices, teams reduce the risk of exposure in the event of a positive case.

One of the schools we partner with tried this before an important soccer game. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, because there were positive cases among both groups. Still, any attempts to limit the spread of the virus should be encouraged.

3. Staying outdoors

The weather obviously doesn’t always cooperate, especially in cooler climates, but teams should spend as much time outdoors as possible. As the CDC points out, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is generally lower when playing outdoors than in indoor settings.

That means even teams that play their games indoors should consider holding practices outdoors, or at least part of the practices. The less time spent with large numbers of athletes gathered closely inside, the better.

In general, athletes should follow the same guidelines as the rest of the student population: get vaccinated, adhere to mask policies, and social distance whenever possible. Still, the very nature of sports often puts them at greater risk for contracting the virus.

PubSEG’s contact tracers understand this risk and are ready to work with you to limit it as much as possible. If you’re looking to boost your contact tracing efforts, consider letting our team help your teams.