Should high schools teams follow professional, college sports and test for covid-19?

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Tuesday, July 7, 2020 | 11:58 AM


Coronavirus testing is being used by professional and college teams to restart their seasons, so why not high school sports?

Clairton football coach Wayne Wade is asking that question.

The Bears have shut down their summer workouts after an asymptomatic player tested positive last week for coronavirus, Wade said. If that player hadn’t visited a community testing center, nobody would’ve known.

The individual slipped undetected through the team’s safety protocols that included daily temperature checks and questions about possible covid-19 exposure.

That worries Wade.

“Why isn’t someone stepping up and saying we’ve got to make this mandatory?” Wade said. “I feel like for us to start back, everybody has to be tested, all of the coaches and all of the players. But I can’t say, ‘If you don’t test, you can’t play.’ I can’t do that. I know I can’t.”

Clairton athletic director Ted Ulmer also favors testing. It would help the school make better decisions, he said, but acknowledged there are logistical issues.

For one, Ulmer wonders whether a school can legally force students to take a covid-19 test. A testing mandate could need parental approval and might require action by a school board or the state.

“It’s certainly something that you would like to be able to do,” Ulmer said. “The more we’re able to test and the clearer picture we have of the challenge we’re facing, the better decisions we’ll be able to make.

“I’m certainly on board with Coach Wade.”

In an ideal scenario, Wade wants to see athletes retested once a week. Without the tests, he’s concerned the virus could spread undetected across a roster with real consequence.

“That’s where my fear is,” Wade said. “We’ll have a kid out there working out and not knowing. And then someone who was in our camp dies from this.”

Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said team-wide testing isn’t a practical approach for high school sports.

“The difference with professional teams is you can sort of limit their (outside) exposures,” Bogen said. “Children who are part of high school teams, you can test them at one point in time, but they’re going to have lots of other exposures. They’re not going to live in a bubble.”

As a result, high school athletes would require frequent tests.

“I don’t think we have the capacity at this time to do that in our country,” said Bogen, noting that professional leagues hire private testing facilities.

Two community health agencies were offering free coronavirus tests in Clairton, so Wade encouraged his players to get tested before workouts started last week. That was the closest Wade could get to team-wide testing.

It’s how the asymptomatic infection was detected.

“I couldn’t tell the kids it was mandatory, but I put it out there that, ‘Here are their schedules, if you’d like to get tested,’” Wade said. “I still don’t know how many kids went and got tested. … Being in our group, they had to notify me after the kid’s test came back positive.”

The infected athlete, who Wade didn’t identify, took part in the July 1 workout with more than two dozen teammates. Wade had the team separated into six workouts stations and limited group sizes to around five players, efforts to minimize potential exposure.

The positive test result arrived after the workout.

The school district acknowledged the infection in a July 3 announcement on its website, and said the football team and coaching staff would quarantine for two weeks. Football practice was postponed indefinitely. Cornerstone Care is offering free covid-19 testing July 17 and 31 in the school parking lot.

“First and foremost, our concerns are with the kids,” Ulmer said. “We want to make sure everybody is safe. We don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way. Moving forward, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen.”

Fortunately, high school football players fall into an age group that hasn’t been hit hard by covid-19. According to Allegheny County statistics, only five percent of total cases involve individuals aged 10 to 19. Of those 187 cases, there were three hospitalizations and no deaths.

Statewide, no covid-19 deaths were reported in that age range.

However, Wade’s concern extends to the adults who interact with the teens, either at school or at home. He said he already tested negative.

Clairton, one of state’s most-successful football programs, is the defending WPIAL Class A champion. The Bears have had only one team workout, so this downtime will hinder their preparation for the fall.

For now, PIAA teams are allowed to conduct voluntary, non-contact workouts, but football season is only a month away. The PIAA-mandated heat acclimatization week starts Aug. 10, and the first day of practice is Aug. 17.

Wade is eager to resume practice but will remain patient.

“I’m in no rush to get back,” Wade said. “Why would I put my whole team, my coaching staff and their families in jeopardy, not knowing if anybody is positive or not?”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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