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Can You Safely Play Indoor Sports During the Pandemic?



During the colder and darker months, many Americans go indoors to exercise. But as COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations increase, how safe is indoor sports?

On February 1, coronavirus deaths topped 440,000 in the United States, with more than 110,000 new cases per day. Experts agree that even if the United States begins vaccinations, infections will continue to rise at first.

“One thing we’ve seen time and time again, indoor environments, whether it’s a restaurant or an indoor playground, give the virus a greater chance of spreading among us, like throwing a dice, “said Mark Cameron, an emerging infectious disease researcher at Case Western Reserve University.

Still, the country is divided over whether that means we should ignore indoor sports this season. In a December PBS NewsHour / NPR / Marist poll, a majority of Americans – 58% – said people shouldn’t be playing indoor sports this winter.

Indoor sports, whether it’s the NHL Finals or a basketball game at a community center, could be riskier than outdoor sports because the lack of air circulation could mean that the particles stay longer. But there is also a wide range of risks within this category, depending on factors such as the ability to wear a mask, the amount of physical contact with other players, and the number of players who depend on shared equipment. . Spectators, especially when seated against each other, can also be a worrying factor, as singing, chanting and screaming throws particles into the air.

Some professional sports leagues like the NHL regularly test their athletes, going to great lengths to protect them from epidemics. But most leagues don’t have the means to form bubbles or check players for the virus.

We asked three infectious disease experts what they thought about the risks of playing indoor sports. Here’s what they had to say:

What Makes Indoor Sports Potentially Dangerous?

Without adequate ventilation, interior spaces can restrict airflow, so coronavirus particles can hang out in the air droplets and potentially infect anyone in the space.

Sport makes it easier for the coronavirus to spread between people. Playing sports, as well as observing them, can involve a lot of heavy breathing, chanting, shouting and chanting, all of which could project respiratory droplets containing the virus into the surrounding air. This becomes more of a concern in confined interior spaces where masking is not necessary.

“If you have cases in individuals, asymptomatic cases in particular, the coronavirus will take every opportunity to spread,” Cameron said.

Games that require close contact, even if players are masked, can also put athletes, coaches and spectators at risk of inhaling the particles and contracting COVID-19.

“This is primarily a short-range disease,” said Susan Huang, an infectious disease expert at the University of California’s Irvine School of Medicine. “There are things you can do to get him to go farther in the air, mostly three feet, often less than six feet, and rarely much further than that.”

Are some sports and facilities riskier than others?

Short answer: Yes, and again it depends on the amount of physical contact a sport has and the ability of players to wear masks.

“Think about the closeness, closeness and physical contact of sport. Huang said. “How likely is it that my breath ends up in someone’s face?” “

Take basketball and ice hockey, for example – both are fast paced and physically demanding sports. They both require closer contact and players constantly scream, gasp, and come closer. Compare that to indoor sports like singles tennis or the indoor track, where athletes can easily wear masks and space out.

Scientists are still debating the impact of temperature and humidity on the spread of coronavirus particles, but ice rinks have been a notable source of infection this winter. The Washington Post reported in early December that Massachusetts had recorded more than 100 cases of youth hockey in a matter of weeks, and that an asymptomatic referee in Maine had exposed up to 400 people in just two days.

Wearing masks and social distancing, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend, can reduce your chances of catching the virus, but these measures are not foolproof. There is always a risk if you interact with others.

“It’s not just about the sport, it’s about the context,” said Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Even golfing outdoors can be risky if there are too many people gathered together.”

All of this is not in black and white. Several layers of protection are important to reduce the risk of transmission. You cannot wear a mask when swimming, but you can socially distance yourself between the lanes, which you cannot do when playing a sport like team basketball. While cooler outdoor activities can reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, any sport or gathering can potentially spread the virus.

“One of the major problems is that even if you are really close to someone’s face, it doesn’t matter how well the ventilation is,” Huang said.

Can you catch the coronavirus from sports equipment?

You may catch the coronavirus from shared sports equipment or touch a high traffic area in a facility, such as a doorknob, and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

The CDC recommends frequent wiping of surfaces and avoiding shared equipment, but it’s not always practical to sanitize every volleyball or squash ball every time someone touches it during play.

Yet experts agree that the main concern about indoor sports is spread through proximity, physical contact and not wearing a mask.

“At the start of the pandemic, we worried more about surfaces,” Chin-Hong said. “I think it’s still a theoretical risk, but probably not as big as throwing yourself through your nose and mouth. A mask is more effective than washing your hands. Other respiratory viruses are more likely to be transmitted by touching things. “

Will the vaccine make it safer for children to play sports?

The two currently approved coronavirus vaccines are around 95% effective against COVID-19 from 28 days after the first dose, even exceeding the expectations of the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci.

“As a country we would have been happy with 50% efficiency, which is a lot for any serious illness. Huang said. “The ones the FDA is looking at are at 94-95% effectiveness levels. It’s not just a home run, it’s a grand slam.

But, there are a few pitfalls. Millions of people need vaccines. So far, the two approved vaccines also require two doses over a period of three to four weeks. And millions of Americans have expressed reluctance to get vaccinated, which could compromise herd immunity.

Children are one of the last groups on the priority vaccine list, and vaccines are not yet available for children under 16. Although the vaccines have been well tested in adults, we do not yet know how effective they will be. in children due to a lack of testing.

Deployment will be slow, so a vaccine is unlikely to have a significant impact on improving the safety of indoor sports this winter. Cameron said we will see an increasingly secure environment over the next six months.

“At some point, but not during the winter, there will be enough people, three-quarters of the population, vaccinated and safe for the rest of us,” he said.

This could mean that indoor youth sports leagues remain riskier for longer – for the community as a whole. This is one of the reasons why it is important for adults to get vaccinated.