2020 was truly a very difficult year with regards to the coronavirus pandemic. There is a lot we know now that we didn’t know at its start and still so much to learn. Scientists and medical researchers are working hard to develop therapeutic medications and vaccines to help protect us from the harms this virus can cause. Families everywhere have had to make sacrifices in their personal lives, work lives and the ways they enjoy sports and recreation, all the while trying to find new ways to stay healthy and active.
While spectator sports are an exciting pastime in the fall and winter months, we have all heard over and over again about COVID infections and spread amongst professional athletes. These individuals have made personal decisions about participating in these sports as it is their job. Sports participation at the student level is clearly a different issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics values sports and physical fitness in their guidance of healthy living and good mental health during this pandemic. The safest sports last summer were noted to be golf, running, baseball and tennis — activities in which we’re able to maintain distance and minimize sharing equipment.
Keep following the rules
The underlying guidance across all activities is the ability to maintain social distancing, perform good hand hygiene, and wear a mask when you can’t maintain a 6-foot distance. For safety, masks may not be required in active elite level exercise, water sports, or where it poses a risk of getting caught on equipment, covering one’s eyes, or choking. Each athlete should have their own mask, access to hand sanitizer, and their own water bottles and towels.
Recreational sports for young children can be challenging because mask-wearing may be difficult to enforce. Competitive or high school level sports for older children pose additional problems because the severity of coronavirus illness in children in their teen years may mimic that in adults. New information about the effects of COVID infection on the heart poses even more concern.
Watch-outs: cardiac conditions
The current recommendations by pediatricians and cardiologists include looking for signs of cardiac inflammation or myocarditis in athletes who had significant symptoms of COVID as part of clearing them to return to their sport. This can mean a minimum of a 2-3 week absence from their sport if they don’t have any cardiac concerns, or of course much longer if they have significant cardiac compromise. It is recommended to be in touch with your healthcare provider before making the decision to return to sports.
What to avoid
During sports practice or games, athletes need to avoid huddles, high fives, handshakes or fist bumps. They shouldn’t share any food or drinks with their teammates. Cheering each other on should be limited to when they are greater than 6-8 feet apart and they should always use a tissue when spitting or blowing their nose.
So the question remains, what can you and your children do to keep healthy and active and be as safe as possible? Here are some suggestions that allow social distancing, mask-wearing and minimal equipment sharing: Walking, hiking and running, fishing, golf, tennis, baseball, swimming and diving, dancing and yoga, and skating and cycling.
The higher risk sports which involve more contact — soccer, football, basketball, gymnastics, cheerleading and hockey — should be undertaken only if you and your athletes, coaches and sports associations appreciate and follow the best guidance they can to minimize risk.
There are no easy answers to the questions parents have about participation in sports. We know robust physical activity contributes to good mental and physical health. Knowing the risks may help you determine good options for your child. Of course, always consider discussing the health risks and benefits with your individual pediatrician. And while this may not be the ideal year for your athlete, we hope that there are good protective vaccines available in the near future which can help protect us all, and allow for a more active lifestyle again!
Anita Chandra-Puri, MD, is a Chicago pediatrician with Northwestern Medical Group Pediatrics, as well as a mom and NPN board member. To ask Dr. Anita a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line, “Ask a Doctor.”