With the continuation of organized youth sports threatened, we call on our political leaders and community to act now to change the trajectory of COVID-19 in Alaska.
The role of sports and recreation in the physical and mental health of Alaska youth and all Alaskans is clear. For many, identity has as much to do with the sports and recreation they pursue as with their academic achievement or profession. We have a strong community of organized youth and adult sports, as well as a culture of outdoor pursuits in our amazing backyard. One positive aspect of the pandemic has been Alaskans embracing outdoor time. Trailheads are crazy busy, which is a good thing.
Sports and recreation organizations have been proactive this summer and focused on keeping people active, while avoiding larger events and gatherings in the interest of community safety. Social distancing, encouraging wearing masks when not exerting, and good hygiene have been a part of most operating plans. While there have been few known exposures in sports and recreation they have been dealt with transparently.
The rise in COVID cases since reopening is potentially threatening our ability to have school sports this fall. Alaska School Activities Association has put out a well thought-out document that provides guidelines to restarting sports practices and events. ASAA is using the Department of Health and Human Services alert levels to guide the types of recommended activity and management of athletes and spectators. These are essentially the same alert levels Anchorage School District is using to determine in-person versus online school, or some sort of hybrid.
This is only a guidance document, but it sets a starting place for school districts to devise a plan. ASAA uses the high risk alert level — 10 new cases/100,000 people/day averaged over 14 days — as the cutoff for no sporting events and a move to outdoor conditioning only with social distancing. While there is wiggle room, it is hard to imagine that when the case rate is worsening, hospitalizations are rising, Anchorage hospital capacity is approaching critical, and contact tracing is overwhelmed that there should be a different cutoff. Teens may be less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, but unfortunately, they seem to have the same ability to transmit the virus as adults.
With the current trend in new cases, the likelihood of in-person school sports beyond outdoor conditioning is decreasing, not only in Anchorage but also in the Kenai Peninsula and possibly in Fairbanks. While Mat-Su, Southeast and much of rural Alaska look OK right now, that could easily change because the state is intertwined and Anchorage health care capacity directly affects all of Alaska. Rural communities are not likely to be excited about sending their teams to a place with more disease, or have large groups of visitors.
One strategy that could help is limiting or even eliminating spectators. We have learned that spectators —some of whom are a vulnerable population — sitting in close proximity for extended periods of time are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than the athletes on the field making intermittent contact.
What we are doing now is not working and has the potential to significantly affect our kids’ physical and mental health by keeping them out of school and school sports. Anything we do now will take several weeks to have an effect. School is a primary access point to sports for many young people across our entire community. Whether they are just participating or competing for a state championship, school sports are a huge contributor to our kids’ physical and mental health, and the future health of our state. We must work harder to slow COVID-19 down in Alaska.
This column was co-written by Alaska Sports and Recreation COVID-19 Advisory Council members Dr. Andy Elsberg, Dr. Marc Kornmesser, Alaska Sports Hall of Fame director Harlow Robinson, Alaska Schools Activities Association director Billy Strickland, Anchorage Youth Soccer Club director Jo Reid, Monroe Catholic High School basketball coach Frank Ostanik, South High School football coach Walter Harmon, West High School activities principal Ja Dorris and Healthy Futures event coordinator Matias Saari.