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With a Vaccine Under Review, Will Youth Sports Develop a Policy?

22 May, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

While COVID-19 rages on (along with the debate on reopening), another debate is building: to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? And while we’re nowhere near having an anti-COVID shot available, there are early indications that not everyone will want to get vaccinated – which of course, raises the question of the safety of youth sports.

In short, it might be better to begin a focus group to discuss policy now, rather than later, when a vaccine becomes available and event owners are caught behind the curve.

And it’s obvious there will be pushback, as evidenced by recent developments, albeit in another arena. Three athletes in the National Rugby League (NRL) have been removed from their team rosters for refusing the flu vaccine. (The league has a formal “No jab/No play” rule and team members are expected to adhere to it – regardless of personal beliefs).

New poll on SDM website: If a safe vaccine is developed for COVID-19, should it be required for sports participation? Click here to answer!

While one player noted his refusal to be vaccinated stemmed from “a bad experience” following a flu shot in 2012, the other two players have not noted why they would not get the shot this time around. The situation has caused concern in the NRL which is already seeing its season suspended because of the coronavirus crisis.

While the flu vaccine (obviously) will not prevent individuals from contracting COVID-19, its ability to keep them from contracting the flu is valuable because the flu can be debilitating and can leave individuals far more vulnerable to the serious effects of COVID-19.

And expect the anti-vax issue to gather force in the face of the pandemic. According to NPR, “A vaccine manufacturer is reporting preliminary data suggesting its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and appears to be eliciting in test subjects the kind of immune response capable of preventing disease. Moderna, Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, developed the vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The results reported Monday come from an initial analysis of a Phase I study primarily designed to see if the vaccine is safe.”

The early signs are promising, propelling the Dow Jones industrial average to spike by 700 points, according to the Washington Post. Even better: Moderna has reported no serious side effects to the vaccine yet; a few low-level side effects issues noted by volunteers in the study included redness at the injection site, headache, fever and flu-like symptoms, although none of these lasted more than a day.

But it would not be the first time a vaccine has shown promise in the early stages but could not receive worldwide acceptance because of the results that occurred later in testing; an example came in 2015 with a vaccine for dengue fever.  The hardcore anti-vaxxer population tends to latch onto such examples and use them to claim children should not be innoculated for communicable diseases. And vaccines, after all, are always going to be a sore point (sorry) in youth sports circles. In addition, the CDC notes, many states have exemption policies for parents who say they have a religious preference against having children vaccinated, although in some cases, an outbreak of a given disease can allow states to override that

And few diseases have been the focus of world health debates the way COVID-19 has; despite the global rate of infection and death, there are still those who believe the virus to be a hoax and who want to ignore all recommendations of precautions, and who falsely claim that precautions infringe on their civil liberties. Expect there to be an equal amount of individuals who refuse vaccinations for their children but think they should still be allowed to play competitive sports. 

With so much of the travel sports market being made up of youth events, the news that a vaccine is in development (or at least is in the rudimentary stages of being in development) is a wake-up call to event owners who need to develop protocols for safe play. Already, some officials have gone on record to say sports should not play until a vaccine is widely available. Former DI coach Karen Weaver is one of those; in fact, the title of her recent article in Forbes says it all: Without A Vaccine, There Is No Way College Athletes Can Play This Fall.

Weaver’s article describes the multitude of contact points athletes have on campus – both as team members and as students, as well as in their daily lives. She creates a scenario as to how many people also are affected by these contact points, and ultimately, what could happen if just one infected person were present. She details the potential spread of the virus on campus and its ramifications, not only on sports but on academia, as well as on the college’s public image and its liability as well as on parents’ ability to feel safe about having their children on campus.

“Please don't think I’m being overly dramatic,” she writes. “This is a virus that presently has no known vaccine, no known cure. We know it spreads from person to person. The Centers for Disease Control state: “Some recent studies have suggested that COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.” College athletes being directed to come back to campus to start the season (creating the sense that campus will return to normal in Fall 2020), is not only wrong, it is exploitation of the highest order.”

Mark Emmert of NCAA has noted that sports can’t play unless students are physically present on campus but Weaver’s article slams that announcement by stating that simply being on campus doesn’t mean it is safe for students to play sports. In her estimation, it’s a bomb waiting to go off.

States that require vaccines for school-age children but which also allow parents to claim exemptions from vaccines based on religious or personal reasons include, among others, Oklahoma. If a vaccine is developed, House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, anticipates the state health department would update the vaccination schedule for children to include COVID-19 once a safe and effective vaccine is available and the Legislature would approve it as long as parents could apply for the same exemptions.? 

“I think it would be widely used,” Echols said to a reporter from Oklahoma Watch. “I would take it.”? But, he added, a general requirement to be vaccinated would not be accepted. “There’s no chance of the Oklahoma Legislature passing a People’s Republic of China mandate.”

The fact that large youth sports events bring together children from a diverse group of backgrounds and belief systems means the chances are high that unvaccinated children (as well as those who are carrying the virus asymptomatically) would be present – and would give the disease to others, as well as to family members, officials and anyone else who was not vaccinated. And that, say officials, could lead to future waves of the vaccine.

“Only a coronavirus vaccine can truly protect us from future outbreaks,” Dr. Scott Ratzan, a physician and medical misinformation expert at the City University of New York and Columbia University, told ABC News. “But what if the effort succeeds and large numbers of people decide not to vaccinate themselves or their children?”

While the anti-vax movement is far from disappearing, it’s obvious that at least mainstream America is ready to get the shot, if it means getting on with their lives. According to an article in SB Nation, The Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall released a poll showing almost three out of four Americans plan to stay at home and avoid sporting events until there a vaccine is developed for COVID-19. According to the poll, 72 percent said they would not attend a game under any circumstances, 13 percent answered that they would, but only if social distancing measures are in place — with only 12 percent of those polled saying they would return to watching games like normal without a vaccine in place.

New poll on SDM website: If a safe vaccine is developed for COVID-19, should it be required for sports participation? Click here to answer!

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