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Coronavirus testing looms as big issue for prep sports this fall

A woman has a COVID-19 test Wednesday at the Clark County Combined Health District’s free COVID testing clinic at Hayward Middle School. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
A woman has a COVID-19 test Wednesday at the Clark County Combined Health District’s free COVID testing clinic at Hayward Middle School. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

The Ohio Department of Health’s current guidelines pertaining to sports, though temporary, contain a potentially problematic provision for high schools.

Among the sector-specific operating requirements for “games, leagues, conferences and tournaments for contact sports” released Tuesday is receiving a negative COVID-19 test result before traveling to a competition.

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While a negative test clears the athlete for competition, a positive test prohibits the athlete, teammates and all team staff from continued participation in the competition.

The order is temporary — issued in large part to allow The Basketball Tournament to go on in Columbus from July 4-15 — but Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said its protocols will help the state learn more about how sports can operate and could impact any possible future guidelines issued.

Multiple local high school athletics directors said mass testing, especially frequently, is not feasible for them.

“What they issued for the next 10 days so that tournament could happen in Columbus is totally different,” said Northmont Athletic Director Micah Harding. “Those guys are being tested, they’re living in a bubble. Our kids are not in a bubble. Our kids are not going through daily testing, so it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison.”

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Like many across the state, Thunderbolt athletes resumed school workouts last month.

And as at many area schools, Harding said they have conducted symptom checks in place of testing in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading if a member is infected.

“Every place that our teams go — even ones that practice off site — have a QR code that they used to scan in, and it lists their name, and then it has a list of symptoms,” he said. “That will also help us if we ever have to do contact tracing to see who may have come in contact with that person (if they become infected).”

Along with testing, contact tracing has been cited by health experts as an important one-two punch in the fight to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 without forcing most of the population to shelter in place.

When two Centerville football players tested positive in June, contact tracing helped Rob Dement's department avoid an outbreak among Elks athletes.

Dement confirmed frequent testing would not be possible for CHS, but he has discussed protocols with medical partner Premier Health.

“We would be in a position to do something if we had to,” Dement said. “Would we be in a position to do something consistently throughout the year? No way, but we know that there may come a time where it might make sense that we may need to do something like that, so we have discussed that process with Premier, and I think we would be ready to institute a plan. We have not formalized that plan, but we have certainly discussed it.”

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In Clark County, Shawnee Director of Athletics Steve Tincher expressed a similar point of view.

“I think you know if they came out with of testing every time you play an away contest everybody involved with the party that’s going, it’s not feasible for high school athletics,” Tincher said.

At issue is not just cost but also the availability of tests and even the timing involved in getting many of them processed.

“You get tested on a Thursday before a Friday night football game, you’re not gonna get those test results back until Saturday or maybe Monday,” Harding said. “If it’s over the weekend I’ve heard anywhere from 48 to 72 hours before you get it.”

As has been the case for summer workouts, symptom checks are likely to have to serve as a proxy for testing if sports are able to go on.

“I think we’ll see when the guidelines change here in the second half of July,” Tincher said. “When we start in August, I think it’ll be back to where we’ll be responsible for assessing the kid. Maybe taking temperatures, not having kids travel if they show any signs of illness at all. If it gets to a point where you have to test before you play an away contest, I think that’ll cripple high school sports.”

Springfield Director of Athletics Mike Dellapina agreed the ability to test anyone at anytime would be ideal but said his department is working with the Clark County Combined Health District to come up with the next-best solution to be able to have sports in the safest, healthiest way possible.

“I don’t know if there is an answer at this point, and I think every school district has to work closely with their local health department to determine what the best practices are for them,” Dellapina said. “But I can tell you that from our standpoint, we would much rather err on the side of caution and take every step necessary to ensure student safety, knowing that here’s still a lot of people out there that are not doing what’s recommended to keep everybody safe.

“So we continue to encourage our kids and our coaches to self assess. We continue to urge them to stay home if they feel any type of symptoms.

“We want to encourage our kids and our coaches and our families to take steps to protect themselves and protect others.”