UW  study shows school sports don’t increase cases of COVID-19

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A University of Wisconsin study showed that participation in sports is not associated with increased risk of COVID-19 among high school athletes, which is good news for athletes like Middleton’s Tanner Ballweg./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

A ground-breaking study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health has found that "...participation in sports is not associated with increased risk of COVID-19 among Wisconsin high school student-athletes."

Published by Drew Watson, MD, MS, a Team Physician for University of Wisconsin Athletics and member of the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin, the study provides a more clear picture of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on high school athletics. It follows up on a study released in June that examined the significant mental health impacts on student-athletes during the sports shutdown and school closures of the spring.

The researchers collaborated with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) to collect data from 207 schools in the state, representing more than 30,000 student-athletes, 16,000 practices, and 4,000 contests in September of 2020. 

There were 271 cases of COVID-19 identified, for a case rate of 901 per 100,000. This is below the overall case rate of all 14-17 year olds in Wisconsin of 1,035 per 100,000 according to data from the Department of Health Services. Of the 271 reported positive cases, there were no hospitalizations or deaths. 

According to the findings, no sports were found to have a higher incidence rate (cases per person-day) than the average 14-17 year old in the state.

In addition, schools were asked to report the source of the transmission of any positive cases, if known. 209 of the 271 positive cases had a known source; of those, only one was attributed to a sports contact. Most known cases were attributed to household contact (55%). Nearly 41% were attributed to community contact, and only five total were attributed to school contact.

Schools were also asked if classes were being conducted in-person or virtually during the study period. The incidence rate nor case rate of COVID-19 in athletes did vary significantly whether classes were conducted virtually or in-person. The case rate for in-person student-athletes was 922 per 100,000 with an incidence rate of 0.000314, while the case rate for virtual students was 991 per 100,000 with an incidence rate of 0.000347.

The study reported that 100% of schools participating had a formal plan in place to mitigate risk associated with COVID-19 and its spread. Common mitigation strategies included player/staff symptom monitoring, face mask use by staff, face mask use by players off the field, increased facility disinfection, and more.

The study concluded: "These findings suggest that participation in sports is not associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 among Wisconsin high school student-athletes. The total case rate and incidence rate reported by this statewide sample representing over 30,000 student-athletes are lower than those reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services for 14-17 year olds during the same time period. In fact, no specific sport had a statistically higher incidence rate than the background incidence among adolescents across the state during the same time period. Furthermore, while the number of schools utilizing virtual instruction was small, we identified no difference in COVID-19 incidence between student athletes from schools with in-person versus virtual instruction."

The study also had similar findings to other existing literature regarding the severity of COVID-19 in children, as there were no reported hospitalizations or deaths. The results of this study mirror another major research paper released by the same group of doctors regarding COVID-19 in youth soccer.

The group hopes these studies can help contribute to the ongoing discussions about return to play, risks and benefits of playing sports during this period, and how school leaders can help mitigate the risks. They emphasize that COVID-19 risk will vary in different areas of the state and country, and by age group, and encourage leaders to continue to assess changing dynamics.

The publishers of the study hope to use these results to expand and replicate the efforts to better understand risk in other populations and to provide a more clear picture of COVID-19 transmission during sports.


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