New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
COVID rules far different this year
They stood in front of the goal post at Veterans Stadium in New Britain last week, a lineup of high school athletes, coaches, administrators, and politicians.
Gov. Ned Lamont was on one spot on the turf, CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini on another. Dr. Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, was nearby.
The message of the day? Vaccinate. Connecticut’s high school sports braintrust and leaders were urging student-athletes to vaccinate ahead of the fall season.
The contrast from 12 months earlier, though, was striking.
As COVID-19 gripped the state in early August 2020, the CIAC was attempting to formulate plans for the school sports calendar. The pandemic a moving target, Lungarini sought guidance from the state and public health officials.
DPH, grappling with the health crisis, was at times unresponsive. There were mixed signals as plans shifted amid late-night emails and pleas for guidance. There were delays and post
ponements until finally the fall schedule was disrupted as student-athletes and parents protested the CIAC and state lawmakers.
A year later, the delta variant casts a shadow as the 2021 schedule year approaches. Yet the CIAC and the state have publicly provided a united front in unveiling the plan for high school sports.
After almost a year and a half of life under COVID, preparation and planning is far more seamless.
“One of the biggest differences between last year and this year is that we have a year’s worth of data that we can all draw from,” Lungarini said. “When we were dealing with this last year, every aspect of COVID was new and unchartered. This year, not only are we able to take information and learn from what happened across the country with interscholastic athletics and getting kids back to in-person learning, but we were able to collect data and specifically look at CIAC sports and how our mitigation strategies at least were able to provide a safe environment.
“We all have a much better understanding of what’s effective and how to provide safe experiences for kids.”
Lungarini said earlier this year that communication with the state — specifically, DPH — was understandably erratic in the summer of 2020. Coaches and athletic directors, seeking guidance from the CIAC, saw guidelines change and evolve as new information about COVID emerged.
This summer, the variant caused a pause of anxiety for fall athletes and coaches. Yet as football conditioning approached two weeks ago, Lungarini was adamant that the sport would return.
With falls sports (other than golf ) set to begin Sept. 9, he cites what the medical world has learned about how the virus is spread.
“And you add onto that … the biggest advancement is we have the vaccine,” Lungarini said. “At this time last year, we didn’t. So that continues to be this year the No. 1 mitigating strategy to successfully engage kids in in-person instruction and keep them involved in extracuriculars.”
Among the lessons learned from states where football was staged? The sport is not the superspreader some expected it might be. The virus, research has found, spreads mostly indoors, so behavior in locker rooms and team buses is more concerning than on the field.
“With football, the contact periods are relatively brief during plays, and it’s outdoors which puts it at a lower risk compared to indoor sports,” David Banach, a UConn Health epidemiologist and head of infection prevention, told Hearst Connecticut Media. “It’s difficult to make any definite conclusions about that, but the fact that it’s outdoors and players have transient contact on the field makes it lower risk.”
The CIAC released its fall COVID guidelines on Aug. 12. Masks are required for all indoor activities — including volleyball and swimming — regardless of vaccination status. That includes within locker rooms or meeting rooms for athletes participating in outdoor sports.
But an overarching message from the guidelines, though, center around vaccines. The CIAC and the state urged athletes to vaccinate based on data from around the country.
Lungarini said the vaccine is the primary reason he approaches the fall with a level of confidence.
“With a significant element of kids being able to get vaccinated, that keeps them in the game if they’re in close contact,” Lungarini
said. “They don’t have to quarantine. We’re seeing a significant impact with less severe illness in people who contract COVID with the vaccine. That will help get kids in classrooms and back faster, so all those things put together give us cause to be confident in our abilities to provide safe, inperson learning and safe extracurricular activities for kids.”
Indeed, vaccinated athletes and high school staff who are a close contact with a known COVID-19 case will not be required to quarantine as long as they are asymptomatic and wear a mask until receiving a negative COVID test within three to five days. Unvaccinated asymptomatic students who are a close contact of a known COVID-19 case will quarantine for 10 days (with a negative test between days 7 and 10) or 14 days without a test. Vaccinated and unvaccinated students who experience COVID-19 symptoms after close contact with a known COVID-19 case will quarantine for 10 days (with a negative test between days 7 and 10) or 14 days without a test.
The CIAC recommends the unvaccinated be tested at least once per week.
The guidelines could shift, of course, as new information emerges. But the CIAC, guided by steady communication with DPH and public health officials, has a plan.
2021 is not 2020.
“It’s very different,” Lungarini said. “We just have a better understanding that this is a virus that likes to live. We’re going to see multiple variants — it’s not that there’s just one variant out there, there’s multiple variants — and we can expect that variants will continue to emerge as we deal with COVID.
“We never approached this as …. that we would come into this year and not be dealing with COVID. We always approached it from a standpoint of, we’re still going to be dealing with COVID, let’s learn as much as we can and figure out how to engage kids safely. Because, again, it’s not just about the health and safety perspective of COVID but it’s also about the social, emotional, mental health and physical health needs of our kids.”