In Michigan, high school athletes start practices this week, leaving many concerned about safety. To get insight into the fall sports season during the coronavirus pandemic, MLive talked to Dr. Rand McClain. Dr. Rand McClain is the Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health.
At his practice, McClain helps athletes who are trying to maximize their health and performance. McClain relates to them since he was a former athlete himself.
With so much still up in the air, McClain believes that structure and staying responsible will be important steps in keeping high school athletes healthy.
“I think one of the things you have to consider with high schoolers is, with that age group, you’ve got that sense of invincibility, maybe some sense of bucking the tide or resisting authority,” McClain said. “I think that – for the sense of the individuals, as well as other members of the team and those within the league itself – the point has to be made this is an all-or-nothing deal. It’s not just about the individual, certainly.”
Cross-contamination between team life and home life remains a risk. It’s not unusual for a hundred high school athletes or more to try out for a sport in Michigan. This causes concern for athletes, coaches, and parents alike. On the contrary, McClain sees sports as an opportunity to regulate the behavior of teenagers and providing an environment that’s safe to return to every day.
”The point has to be made this is an all-or-nothing deal. It’s not just about the individual, certainly.
Dr. Rand McClain
“It’s probably important to stress for the parents that (practicing and competing) is probably better than not having a season,” McClain said. “What are the kids going to do otherwise? They are more likely to … be much more disciplined within the program than outside the program. If these athletes are going to practice every day – and as part of this, we assume the protocols are going to be laid out smartly – if they’re following these protocols, they’re probably more well protected than the average person or more than (doing other things). What are you doing if you’re not going to practice? What are you doing if you’re not thinking about following all of the right protocols to keep yourself safe because you want to play in the big game?”
Staying safe for sports means taking precautions in a high school athlete’s usual life as well. McClain, as well as many others in the medical field, says wearing a mask at all necessary times in public will be of the utmost importance.
“You’ve got to wear your mask,” McClain said. “It protects others around you as well as, to some degree, yourself. You’ve got to maintain your distance as best you can. Again, it goes back to doing those things not just because everyone else is doing them, but because you are part of a team now. You have a team and you’re going to protect your teammates. I think they’re going to be protected more than the average person.”
If a high school athlete is going to stay healthy, they’re going to have to do more than the typical coronavirus guidelines. McClain says things like properly washing your hands should be a given, whether in a pandemic or not. Athletes should also avoid staying up late or pulling all-nighters. McClain stresses that an athlete’s body needs proper care at all times.
“You’ve got to take good care of yourself,” McClain said. “Hopefully you’re motivated, but you’ve got to eat right, you’ve got to get your sleep and you’ve got to rest right, sort of speak. Nothing unusual here. I think it’s more of a psychological deal with high school athletes than it is repeating what we already know what has to be done.”
McClain recognizes that the lack of social distancing in sports concerns parents. He also believes, however, that this is the point of following strict protocols.
“It’s been brought up time and time again: What was the purpose of all this?” McClain asked. “You could argue this could be the same case forever … whether it’s the flu or another virus, it could happen in a contact sport. The purpose of social distancing, the quarantining and all of that, was not to eliminate the virus. That’s impossible. It was to mitigate the damage that could be caused and be compassionate to those who might not receive care if too many people got sick at once. They called it flattening the curve. The idea that we’re going to prevent our kids from getting sick is ridiculous. If that’s where some people are going with this, then lock them up at home and don’t go anywhere. That’s not the purpose of this.
“So, yeah, they’re going to get on the football field, but the presumption is – I know it’s a pretty big presumption with what I’ve said earlier because we’re dealing with high school players here – but the presumption is, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together. We’re in a different pool than the public at large. We’re not going to go to Friday night parties because we’re invested in football.’ So when these players get out on the field with one another, they’re in a special bin of people who have decided they are going to do more than the average person to protect themselves so there is no virus to spread.”
The schools in the district switching to strictly online, at least for the beginning of the school year, gives sports a unique opportunity. McClain notes that high school athletes can essentially “bubble” themselves away from the rest of the school and society. This limited “bubble” of exposure would also be helpful for contact tracing.
“If it’s executed, it can work,” McClain said of the bubble.
McClain warns that the “ifs” of the situation continue to grow, meaning any lapse in judgment potentially ruins the future. All things considered, he still believes an attempt at a safe, controlled environment is better than most other alternatives.
“Obviously, if you do it stupidly, it’s a waste of time,” McClain said. “You can’t say, ‘Everyone should do this, this and this, but then we’re going to have a group meeting at a movie theater that’s open to the public with people sitting next to strangers,‘ you know what I mean. I don’t mean to raise a stupid point, but the presumption is the protocols they are going to institute are going to protect the high school athletes – or whoever the athletes are – more so than the public at large.”
McClain keeps faith that the general public understands and falls in line with the necessary protocols. He is also not under any false pretense that one “slip up” can spread the virus. In those cases, he says the COVID-19 infected person can usually figure out where it came from.
“I had a relative who got sick,” McClain said. “She said, ‘It must have been the elevator that one time. We have so many people using the elevator and I didn’t wear my mask that one time.’ So people can trace it back.”
McClain further stressed the importance of wearing masks, citing a well-known instance shared by the CDC in which two hairdressers who contracted COVID-19 did not reportedly pass along the virus to any of the 139 exposed clients they served. Both hairdressers and approximately 98 percent of the clients properly wore a mask during the appointments.
If proper precautions and social distancing took place outside of team activities, there’s potential for high school athletes to practice and play without masks.
“The protocols work,” McClain stressed. “In other words, by the statistics of it, you’re going to decrease your odds of passing on the virus or receiving it because we know it works to a certain degree. The issue is though, if everyone is already following the protocols, the odds are reduced to such a low number – vis-à-vis, what we can show with the hairdressers – is it overkill to say to wear masks in the huddle? Is it overkill for the first baseman to wear a mask because the runner is on first base? That’s where you get into statistical odds and all that stuff if the juice were to squeeze.
“I would argue, at that point, it’s kind of ridiculous because the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. You’re not going to want to wear a mask when you’re running hard in the field. You make the decision up front, that by doing all of these other things, we’re going to limit the risk as much as we can and we are going to tolerate that very small percentage of risk that is going to be there. I think that’s proven to be successful.
“Where the virus is entering the community is in the breakdown of execution of some of these simple measures. We’ve got studies showing the issue isn’t occurring on the field. The issues are occurring off the field where guys and gals are doing what they’re not supposed to be doing.”
”If it’s executed, it can work.
Dr. Rand McClain
McClain believes wearing a mask during play is up to the athlete. Professionals in basketball wear a mask during games with no problem. However, he says sports with continued heavy breathing may have performance issues wearing a mask.
He cites a study where surgeons see a negative impact after wearing a mask for extended periods of time. In this case, a typical surgeon mask can raise the carbon dioxide levels in the blood. But with masks, a middle ground exists. Masks worn during everyday life can allow for no masks when it comes to sports.
“It’s probably more to the point (with masks) where you say, if you’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” McClain said. “Let’s not hinder the performances, but let’s agree if we do this, this and this, that’s an acceptable risk but we’re not going to wear a mask when we’re playing football or bicycling or running on the track … If we’re going to do it, let’s play the game right.”
In mid-July, Clarkston football coach Kurt Richardson said, “Kids and parents have got to decide whether they want athletics, or they want to party. You can’t have both.” McClain believes Richardson’s comment hits the nail on the head, even applying beyond the boundaries of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Now, more than ever, it’s important not to party because of the virus,” McClain said. “But also because you want to win a championship. Rein it in for whatever it is, two-and-a-half months. If you can’t do that, then you don’t have the discipline to do the other things either. You shouldn’t be playing. Arguably that’s what you could be saying to the players with some conviction.”