Pioneers run onto field

The Watauga Pioneers football team runs onto the field for the first time in the 2021 season.

BOONE — Athletics at Watauga County Schools is not seeing the positive cases and quarantines that many other schools and teams are experiencing.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services stated on Sept. 8 that it is seeing a sharp increase in COVID-19 clusters among school sports teams.

For the period between July 1 and Sept. 2, clusters among school sports teams accounted for 45 percent of all clusters in North Carolina middle and high schools, despite most school sports activities not beginning until August as schools began the fall semester, according to NCDHHS.

“We need everyone, including our student athletes and their coaches, to increase layers of prevention to fight this more contagious Delta variant: don’t wait to vaccinate and urge others to do the same,” said NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer and State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson. “Tested, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Student athletes who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after a close contact with someone with COVID-19.”

For the week ending Sept. 4, children age 17 and under made up 31 percent of the state’s new COVID-19 cases. That is the highest percentage since the pandemic began, according to NCDHHS.

Between July 1 and Sept. 2 there have been at least 42 athletics-related clusters in North Carolina public, charter and private middle and high schools, with a sharp increase in August coinciding with the start of the school year. Only four athletics clusters occurred in July. While NCDHHS data cannot distinguish how people were exposed in these clusters, past public health investigations in other states have shown that spread among teammates often happens off the field, including during practice, according to NCDHHS.

“We know that students are at higher risk for getting COVID-19 when they are in close contact with other students, especially when they are unvaccinated or unmasked,” said WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott. “Playing sports creates an added risk since there is no way to socially distance in most sports during competition. Our coaches and athletes have worked very hard over the last year-and-a-half to do everything possible to give us the best chance to continue athletic activities.”

In the first three weeks of school, Elliott said the school system saw 500 students and 78 staff who were close contacts to COVID-19 positive people. Of those who were exposed to COVID-19, 253 students and 66 staff did not have to be in quarantine.

Elliott said those students and staff did not have to quarantine because of social distancing, masking, a growing vaccination rate among students, and the thorough investigations and tests being conducted by WCS nurses.

“We have only had five middle and high school athletes and one coach test positive.” Elliott said. “All of the athletic cases we suspect were from contact and activities outside of school.”

Elliott said the five athletes who have tested positive were from five different sports, with two being in middle school and three being in high school. From the three high school cases, 34 close contacts were identified with four of those contacts having to quarantine. Elliott said the other 30 did not because they were masked, vaccinated or had antibodies.

From the two middle school cases, 19 close contacts were identified with 15 of those having to quarantine.

“The difference is that we have a much higher vaccination rate among high school athletes than middle school athletes,” Elliott said. “There is just no way around the fact that the best way for our students to have a normal school and athletic experience is for them to be vaccinated.”

Elliott said some pretty stringent precautions are in place, which has so far resulted in WCS athletes getting to enjoy their athletic activities.

The precautions include keeping players in separate groups when possible such as keeping the junior varsity and varsity teams separate, and keeping social distance in practices when possible. Athletes are required to wear masks in the locker rooms, when players are on the benches, and when arriving and leaving practices.

“Our coaches decided that the football teams will wear masks during practices,” Elliott said. “The thing that has kept our teams active and in competition is our high vaccination rate among coaches and athletes.”

Most of the WCS athletic teams have a majority of players who are vaccinated and several teams have nearly a 100 percent vaccination rate among players.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for those 12 and older.

“Our coaches were among the very first of our staff members to get vaccinated, so they really set the example,” Elliott said. “Without masks and vaccines, we probably would have the same issues with clusters and cancelled games that we are seeing at other places. Coaches often talk about the need to ‘control the controllables,’ and that is what they have done and so far it is working.”

Most of the cases the school system is seeing are from viral spread within families and also among students during outside of school activities and social events.

“I attended one of our middle school volleyball tri-matches this week and I could not stop smiling,” Elliott said. “It was great to see kids getting to be kids and doing normal things. I am very proud of them.”

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