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First Beneficiary of Vaccine Will Be Tournaments for Vulnerable Athletes

2 Jan, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Events for Seniors, Organ Transplant Recipients, Cancer Survivors and Others are Likely to See Initial Boost

As the sports travel industry continues to navigate the thorny post-COVID landscape, one thing has become abundantly clear: the availability of a vaccine will be an enormous help in getting live events back on track.

With 2020 (thankfully) in the books, the future is far brighter.

Two vaccines are currently available, according to USA TODAY. The Moderna vaccine is the latest arrival on the scene, joining the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already being given to health care workers and nursing home residents. 

And while it may take some time until everyone is able to receive the vaccine and a herd immunity develops, there is already great optimism that it will help; in fact, in a recent poll of SDM readers, the vast majority (close to 65 percent) noted that the availability of a vaccine would be key to the rebound of the sports tourism economy as long as event owners mandated it.

One of the sectors the rebound is likely to be felt first is in events that had to be cancelled first: those for athletes who were at the most risk for COVID, including seniors, cancer survivors and organ transplant recipients. SDM spoke with some event owners whose populations stand to benefit the most from the vaccine, to get their thoughts on the issue.

The Donate Life Transplant Games of America, a multi-sport event for athletes who have either given or received an organ or tissue donation, was scheduled to be held in 2020; however, the event was moved to 2021 in light of the ongoing pandemic.

According to Bill Ryan, President and CEO of the Transplant Games of America and the Transplant Life Foundation, the organization has been staying on top of all developments, “because our transplant community is so attuned to the impact of the virus on immune-suppressed patients.” 

“COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on everyone and no group more impacted than the thousands of immune-suppressed transplant recipients,” he notes. “The transplant community, in a normal course of a day, will practice many of the health guidelines issued by the CDC relating to the COVID-19 virus. Wearing masks, frequent hand-washing and social distancing is fairly normal.“

The event includes 20 sports/activity categories, ranging from the active (pickleball, tennis and the run/walk, for example) to mind sports (Texas Hold’em poker and a trivia challenge) and at least one event that is unique to the Games, Lyrics for Life. (More details about many of the activities offered can be found here).

Ryan adds that the work of the organizational team is ongoing.

“In our planning for the 2020 Transplant Games rescheduled to July 16-21, 2021, we have relied heavily on the guidance of federal, state, and local health officials, and the approval and implementation of the vaccines will allow us to move forward with our planning for the Games next year at the Meadowlands, New Jersey.  The safety and health of our participants is first and foremost, and we are excited that there is a strong positive outlook for our event, and for all sporting events across the country.”

There will be a free COVID-19 Transplant Community Coalition Live Webinar to answer questions on the vaccine on January 26; more information is available here.

Immunosuppressed, immunocompromised and otherwise vulnerable athletes, such as those who are battling cancer, also stand to be able to compete again once a vaccine is in place and available to the larger sector of the population as well. One group that puts on large group runs and walks is the Susan G. Komen organization, which offers its signature events, the Race for the Cure and the More Than Pink Walk, as well as the Komen 3-Day. Most of its events went virtual in the wake of the pandemicKari Bodell, Vice President of Development Programs Strategy for Komen, told SDM back in October the live programs would return once it was safe to bring them back.

“We absolutely see them returning. But we see them returning when the time is right. When the health of our supporters and the people we’re supporting is not something we need to worry about. When everyone can participate safely.”

Also glad to see the arrival of a vaccine are the event owners of games for senior citizens. When the pandemic first took hold, it was the National Senior Games Association who led the way, adopting new rules for those wishing to qualify safely for the next national games, which have been postponed to May of 2022 in Fort Lauderdale.

“We started to have these conversations in February and March; and it was early on that the spring state qualifiers state games were beginning to be postponed,” recalls Sue Hlavacek, director of events and programs for NSGA. “We pulled together our focus group and explored every possible option for how to do this. What resulted is the adjusted qualifying process that best addressed a situation in which some qualifying games could not be held. It may not be the best for everybody, but it allows us to stay true to the people who are really dedicated to our organization and to attending these games. We wanted to give them every opportunity to come back to us.”

Like others, NSGA is happy and relieved to have a vaccine on the market. 

"We think the vaccine will give our demographic the confidence and freedom to get back to training for the National Senior Games," Hlavacek adds. "It will alleviate the anxiety for many about what and where they can go to be safe to train for their competition.”

"When the vast majority of your participants are in the highest risk group, as is the case with the Huntsman World Senior Games, the distribution of a vaccine could make all the difference," notes Kyle M. Case, the CEO for that organization. "We are incredibly optimistic that it will be a game changer for us as well as other events in the industry."

So, of course, the next question becomes this. When will we see vaccines given to children, so that youth sports can resume safely?

Presently, vaccines are being given to vulnerable populations first, along with frontline healthcare workers. Healthy children, such as youth athletes with no pre-existing healthcare conditions, are likely to receive theirs later, perhaps as late as summer or fall of 2021Additionally, Reuters notes that Moderna has raised its vaccine output forecast for 2021 to 600 million doses, which may push up that timeline a bit.

The most current economic relief package pushed through Congress provides $32 billion for vaccine procurement and distribution and additional $22 billion to states for testing, contact tracing, and COVID-19 mitigation efforts. It was signed into law shortly before the new year. 

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