Unvaccinated students driving early-season sports cancellations in Maine

There’s an easy solution to limiting the number of high school sports cancellations due to COVID-19 as the fall season begins this week, Dr. William Heinz said.

“If the kids were all vaccinated we wouldn’t be having any of these discussions,” said Heinz, a retired orthopedic surgeon from Portland and former chair of the National Federation of State High School Association’s sports medicine advisory committee.

“It’s a virus, and unless everyone catches it and gets over it and develops their own immunity they’re going to have to be vaccinated or they’re at risk.”

Five of the 37 varsity football games scheduled this week have been canceled as positive COVID-19 tests and related contact tracing have forced team members into a quarantine period. The emergence of the delta variant of the virus has caused a spike in Maine cases, with Thursday’s daily statewide count surging to 624.

MPA interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said there are no plans to alter the fall sports season, noting that the majority of the high school sporting events in football, soccer, field hockey, cross country and golf are still set to be played as scheduled.

“The way to avoid [sports cancellations] is to get vaccinated and do pool testing,” Burnham said. “That’s been the messaging right from the beginning from the CDC, the Department of Education and the Maine Principals’ Association. … If kids were vaccinated and schools were participating in pool testing, I believe that the disruptions to the season would be significantly lower than they are now.”

Vaccination levels among eligible students range from 20-24 percent in the Lisbon Public Schools to more than 95 percent in districts such as Bangor, Hermon and Ellsworth, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heinz, who continues to serve on the MPA’s sports medicine advisory committee, expressed concerns with the delta variant of COVID-19 and suggested that at least one recommendation currently in place may need to be updated.

“Because it’s so much more contagious than the alpha variant it puts everyone at risk,” he said. “We have a definition of close contact of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period or physical contact, and we may have to even alter that and say 5 minutes in a 24-hour period because that’s how contagious that delta variant is.”

That close contact statistic is important when it comes to players being required to quarantine if they come into close contact with a teammate or someone else who tests positive for COVID-19. One way around that is to participate in a PCR pool testing program; 352 schools ranging from grades K-12 around the state had signed up for pool testing as of Wednesday, according to Department of Education communications director Kelli Deveaux.

Students are grouped together and given COVID-19 tests each week, with test results returned to the school within 24 to 48 hours. If the group’s result comes back positive, those students are given individual COVID-19 tests to determine who within the group has the coronavirus and must quarantine, while others in the group would not have to quarantine.

Heinz hopes to see high school sports in Maine continue without major interruption, in great part for the physical and mental health benefits for the student-athletes who already have had one traditional fall sports season thwarted by the coronavirus.

“When do we take a step back and say we’ve got to stop?” he asked. “I’m hoping we don’t have to. I want kids in school and I want them playing sports and doing activities, but that’s up to the CDC to make that call as far as when the rate is too great and you’ve got to dial things back again.”

The oversight of the start of the Fall 2021 season is far different than it was last September, when high school sports were delayed and then, with the exception of tackle football, returned in a more limited format governed by state-developed community sports guidelines.

Tackle football, considered a “higher-risk” sport in the guidelines, was replaced by 7-on-7 flag or touch football.

The fall and winter sports seasons were regionalized rather than statewide with no state  tournaments. The winter sport of wrestling was also canceled as a higher-risk sport while volleyball, the lone fall indoor sport, was moved to a late-winter schedule.

The community sports guidelines were retired by the state in late May during the spring sports season, and the MPA has followed the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine CDC since then. Other elements of the return to school this fall — such as mask wearing during the school day — have been left largely to local control.

“Maine CDC continues to provide public health guidance to schools and the Maine Principals’ Association to help them exercise their authority and judgment in managing interscholastic sports,” Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said.

The MPA sports medicine advisory committee met with members of the association’s individual fall sports committees this week and established recommendations for players returning from a COVID quarantine period.

Players in the non-contact sports of golf, cross country, volleyball and fall cheering can return to competition as soon as they are out of quarantine, while participants in contact sports such as soccer and field hockey must participate in at least one full practice before playing in a game.

And in the collision sport of football, the recommendation is that players participate in a full-contact practice as well as a walk-through or helmets-only practice before participating in a game.

“There hasn’t been data to really follow as far as a healthy kid who was quarantining, asymptomatic, and now is coming out of a quarantine. When is it OK for him to play in a game?” Heinz said.

“The key to the recommendations is they have to maintain fitness and they have to maintain acclimatization. If they don’t do that, then we’ll have to revisit those recommendations and make it a longer number of practices.”