By now, the dangers of COVID-19 in relation to age is fairly common knowledge. Basically, the older one is, the higher the chance of experiencing severe complications with the disease.
As of Jan. 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed 494 deaths nationally for the week in persons between the ages of 15 and 24. That jumped to 2,219 for people aged 25-34, and so on. Those numbers are confirmed in general studies elsewhere like the one from pubmed.gov that found that the infection fatality rate for teenagers is well under 0.1 percent and trends upward from there.
But are those numbers also reflected locally, here in West Virginia?
Dr. James Perry is a pulmonary critical care doctor with Pulmonary Associates of Charleston. His group has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning, treating ICU cases from Thomas Memorial and CAMC Memorial hospitals. He estimated that his group sees “over 75 percent” of the ICU cases in the Charleston area.
Perry confirmed what the national numbers have reported, saying he’s seen few severe cases among teenagers, though they certainly exist.
“I would say a low percentage, however it is not a guarantee,” Perry said.
Yet while bars, restaurants and stores remain open, high school athletics in West Virginia remain on hiatus after Gov. Jim Justice pushed the start of winter sports back to March 1. As of this week, all five border states — Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland — are underway.
Those states are operating under strict COVID-19 protocols, including limited or no fans, no concessions, banned postgame handshakes and strict disinfecting rules on basketballs.
In stating his case for keeping sports shut down, Justice has referred to protecting young people. But perhaps the biggest concern around prep athletics is the possible spread to parents, grandparents and beyond.
“When you look inside of a venue, I think there probably is a little bit higher risk, but I think the risk is probably parents and people coming to the games and concession stands and stuff,” Perry said. “If they play sports, I think there should definitely be a thing where they are limited to maybe one or two parents per kid, and I think they would have to do something like that in advance like ticket sales and stuff like that.”
Those are some of the very same precautions other states have taken on the high school level, but Perry also echoed a point made by coaches in West Virginia, referring to a theory that without prep sports to play, young athletes will likely find a way to play elsewhere. And without the official guidelines set by governing boards, in this case the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, those environments have the potential to be much more dangerous than a high school gymnasium abiding by COVID protocols.
“I think when you look at the kids, I think they are at such a low risk of getting extremely sick — the thing you look at are the kids are going to play regardless,” Perry said. “People are going to take them and play travel ball outside of the state, but they are going to play. With these kids, there is no way these kids aren’t going to be playing sports somewhere.”
On the same day (Dec. 30) that Justice announced the extended delay of sports, he also announced that on Jan. 19 all elementary and middle schools would return to class, as would high schools not in the most at-risk counties, or those in the red on the weekly color-coded map.
Another of the main arguments from coaches, parents and those for starting sports sooner is that as long as students are in school, the same dangers exist and likely more so with full student bodies vastly outnumbering individual sports teams.
“My thought is if kids are going back to school full time, I don’t really know what the big difference is going to be for them to be in sports versus them sitting in school,” Perry said. “Now, do I think it is 100% risk free for them to be out playing? No. I mean there is risk every day. But most of our cases that have been contracted are ones that are people who are sitting at home, and they’re not outside.
“But with this, we’ve had some people in their 40s and we’ve had people that were 17 years old, but here’s the thing: I have also had people with the flu. I’ve had people with drug usage. I’ve had people that have been in car wrecks. I’ve had people that tried to commit suicide at that exact same age with just as high a number of incidents or more.”
Perry worries that without the return of athletics, in-person classes and some semblance of normalcy, several of those latter ailments — drug use, suicide and other side effects of mental health issues — could increase dramatically.
“I think if kids are limited from being able to be out and active, I think you are going to see higher incidents of depression, obesity and all of the things that come with kids being less active,” Perry said.
As with most things since the beginning of the pandemic, Perry concluded by saying that the decision to start prep athletics or not is, at its core, simply a measure of risk vs. reward.
With uncertainty in the present and no guarantee anything will be any better in March or beyond, Perry believes that there are risks involved with anything, but certainly no more involved with prep sports than anything else.
“I don’t know that this is ever going to be under control,” Perry said. “So at what point in our life do we draw a line and just say, ‘Hey, we are just going to have to be as safe as possible?’”