As St. Louis County officials tightened the rules Thursday around participation in youth sports, pediatricians pushed back on assertions that kids sports are a primary driver of the spread of coronavirus.
Starting Monday, youth teams in the county can only practice with their own teammates in groups of 10 or fewer and with no spectators. No games or tournaments will be allowed. The rules apply to summer youth leagues and school sports programs. Guidelines for high school fall sports are expected to be released Monday, along with school reopening plans.
At a news conference Thursday, County Executive Sam Page acknowledged that playing sports is not the problem, but “because youth sports bring people together, the activities that surround youth sports are fertile ground for virus transmission.”
At least three high schools, Eureka, Kirkwood and Webster Groves, have reported virus cases this week in student athletes participating in workouts.
But members of the St. Louis Sports Medicine COVID-19 Task Force said there are no local reports of asymptomatic transmission from children to adults, who make up the bulk of illnesses.
Page gave three examples Thursday of local coronavirus cases linked to youth sports:
• Cases in student athletes at one high school and 15 teammates who are awaiting test results.
• “Many young people and their families,” including a 9-year-old who tested positive after attending events outside of St. Louis County.
• A graduate of a local high school who tested positive after playing basketball with 16 other students.
The examples do not indicate any transmission of the virus, and the county has not shared data on youth sports and COVID-19 after repeated requests from the task force, said Dr. Jason Newland, director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Newland said the virus is more likely being spread at house parties, float trips and bars than at Little League games.
“It’s setting up the narrative to blame it on the kids, when adults are driving the transmission,” Newland said. Dr. Mark Halstead, another task force member and a specialist in pediatric sports medicine, said he agreed with Newland’s comments and concerns.
Page said the county has experienced an “explosion of youth cases,” with about 20 cases reported daily in the 10-to-19 age group. County reports show the highest rate of increase recently has been in the 20-to-29 age range, rising to 32 new cases a day from 11 since late June. The under-20 age group makes up about 10% of total cases in the county, which set a record high Thursday of 261 new cases in one day.
‘Kids second, pocketbooks first’
Newland was invited to Page’s news conference Thursday but did not attend and said he is frustrated with the lack of cooperation from the county health department in sharing data and taking advice.
“It seems a poor way of doing it when you have pediatric infectious disease doctors who live and breathe this stuff,” he said.
The goal for the rollback of youth sports is to reduce the spread in the community so children can return to classrooms when school starts next month, Page said.
“We rely on our schools,” Page said Thursday. “We rely on them to teach our children but of course without schools, parents can’t go back to work and some kids don’t have anything healthy to eat.”
Page said he strongly encourages school districts to offer a virtual learning option this fall. School districts are expected to release their reopening plans on Monday.
If schools don’t reopen their buildings, the disparities in health and academics among children will only widen, the pediatricians fear. Continuing to keep public playgrounds and fountains closed while indoor trampoline parks and gyms are allowed to open furthers the divide, Newland said.
Newland said playgrounds and schools are an “easy target” compared with shutting down high-risk settings with indoor crowds like bars, restaurants and churches.