State to counties:You decide if high-risk sports are allowed

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

High risk sports, like basketball, may start as soon as Feb. 1 if county health departments allow them, according to guidance from the state issued on Friday.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Friday, the governor’s office issued guidance that, pending approval from county health departments, will allow high-risk sports, like basketball, to proceed after Feb. 1.

This applies to both school teams and to recreational leagues.

On Tuesday, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “accumulating data now suggest” in-person learning can take place in schools as long as masks are worn and social distancing is observed.

“Actions include taking steps to reduce community transmission and limiting school-related activities such as indoor sports practice or competition that could increase transmission risk,” the article says.

“Numerous media reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among U.S. high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk,” the CDC researchers say.

The researchers also state, “Even though high school athletics are highly valued by many students and parents, indoor practice or competition and school-related social gatherings with limited adherence to physical distancing and other mitigation strategies could jeopardize the safe operation of in-person education.

“While there are likely many factors, the pressure to continue high school athletics during the pandemic might be driven at least in part by scholarship concerns; colleges and universities recruiting athletes for the 2021/2022 academic year should consider approaches that do not penalize students for interruptions to high school sports related to the pandemic to avoid incentivizing activities posing high risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

Daniel McCoy, Albany County’s executive, and Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s health commissioner, both said at a Sunday morning press conference that they hadn’t known about the directive until it came out on Jan. 22.

Whalen said it is important to have a “unified approach” and she has been talking to her counterparts in neighboring counties. Sports leagues frequently cross county lines.

She also said county health officials across the state would be discussing the issue.

“We need to balance the risks very carefully,” Whalen said of allowing high-risk sports.

As a parent, Whalen said, she is aware of the importance of sports. Her son couldn’t play sports in his senior year last spring, Whalen said, and her daughter, currently a high school junior, is also an athlete.

Examples of high-risk sports listed in the guidance include: football, wrestling, ice hockey, rugby, basketball, contact lacrosse, volleyball, martial arts, competitive cheer, and group dance.

The guidance says that local health authorities should consider three factors that “may weigh against permitting such activities”:

— Whether there has been a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19 identified in the area;

— Local rates of COVID-19 transmission or rate of positivity; and

— Local ability to monitor and enforce compliance.

“For all lower, moderate, and higher risk sports, travel for practice or play is prohibited outside of the region or contiguous counties/regions,” the guidance says.

Cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, the highly transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom, have been confirmed in Saratoga County, which is part of the eight-county Capital Region.

The deadline for making a decision is less than a week away — Feb. 1.

“It will be through due diligence and science that this decision will be made,” said Whalen.

McCoy said he was puzzled by the idea that high-risk sports may be allowed with so many more people in the hospital and so many more people dying than in the spring.

He had started Sunday’s press conference by announcing two more deaths — a man and a woman, both in their eighties — bringing the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 295.

So far, 69 Albany County residents have died of the virus in January.

“This is officially now our deadliest month that we’ve had since this virus started ten-and-a-half months ago,” said McCoy.

Over the weekend, McCoy said, he had talked to his counterparts in neighboring counties.

“We are at the highest infection rate we’ve had since it started … and let’s go play sports,” he said, adding, “This got thrown at us unannounced: Here you go, health departments, you decide.”

McCoy spoke of the burden of making decisions in the midst of the pandemic. “I have to know what I did wasn’t based on politics or me getting goddam re-elected. It was based on the science.”

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