Cases among student-athletes will be investigated like others, health officials say

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 27, 2020 3:43 PM CT | Published: August 27, 2020 12:50 PM CT
<strong>An October 2019 file photo of a Briarcrest versus CBHS football game. On Thursday, health officials discussed strategies local high school teams can take to keep players and coaches safe during the pandemic</strong>.&nbsp;(Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

An October 2019 file photo of a Briarcrest versus CBHS football game. On Thursday, health officials discussed strategies local high school teams can take to keep players and coaches safe during the pandemic. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

While the Shelby County Health Department has not sanctioned football or close-contact sports, health officer Dr. Bruce Randolph says schools that continue to play must enforce social distancing rules as much as possible and use facial coverings and separate water bottles.

“Professional sports have the resources of testing their players on a regular basis, weekly, twice weekly,” he said Thursday at the local COVID-19 task force briefing. “Some colleges may also have those types of resources too.”

It’s doubtful high schools do, he said.

Collierville suspends football after two positive COVID-19 tests ‘specific’ to team

Collierville High School on Wednesday suspended football for the next two games after two people connected to the varsity football team tested positive for COVID-19.

Much of Thursday’s briefing centered on strategies local high school teams can take to keep players and coaches safe and eliminate further clusters of infection.

Team members and coaches have the highest risk, said David Sweat, deputy director of the local health department.

“As far as the opposing team, it’s not that there isn’t exposure, but their exposure would be considered less risk because the frequency of interaction and duration is going to be less,” Sweat said.

Members of the opposing team are still notified about the potential, Sweat said.

“We would also discuss with them their opportunities for accessing testing and give them instruction about signs and symptoms to be observing for,” he said, while noting that the position one plays could increase exposure.

“If you’re a lineman, and you’re breathing in each other’s faces and engaged, over and over in direct contact, then obviously you’re going to have more exposure than somebody who’s subbing in for a play and is mostly on the bench on the other side,” Sweat said.

If a player tests positive, the health department will help team members think about how their position interacts with others and who they may have had contact with, “and then we go from there.”

Contact tracing on a team is the same as in a workplace or any other group, Sweat said.

The process begins by interviewing individuals to determine all their activities.

“We also look at the onset date of symptoms, if there are symptoms. If there are no symptoms, we look at the data, the positive test result, to define an exposure period when they could be shedding virus,” he said.

From there, tracers go through all that person’s activities and the people they came across where exposure could have occurred.

“We reach out to all of those identified contacts; we inform them that they could be exposed and need to be in quarantine and discuss testing with them. ... We have a team of contact tracer investigators, but we also have an epidemiologist on staff who focuses on outbreaks and cluster investigations.”

The situation with the Collierville team is like any other where there is a cluster of cases, Sweat said, noting it has been turned over to investigators for them to gather all the necessary information.

Testing questions

The Shelby County Health Department still says that people who have been exposed to a positive case need to be tested, Randolph said, although CDC guidance issued Monday says this is not necessarily the case.

“Our current position on testing is the same: if you are having symptoms, you should be tested,” Randolph said. “Secondly, if you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive, you should be tested. The important thing, even though you are tested, it simply tells you at this time you are negative ... you can still engage in activity and get infected. If you are a close contact, you should be in quarantine (whether) you are tested or not.”

Doctors scratch heads over CDC guidance for less testing

Randolph said a person could get exposed today, get tested in two days and the test is negative. But the person could be positive later because the incubation period of the virus is two weeks.

“Our position is that people who are direct contacts of a positive (case), they need to be in quarantine, which is 14 days. The key thing people need to pay attention is that it is CDC guidance. If you read the fine print, it is guidance, not law. You should refer to local or state health officials for their guidance.”

Randolph continued, “We use CDC guidance and others to come up with what we think is the best for Shelby County residents.”

Some have questioned why Shelby County is requiring 12 feet of separation for fans at sporting events while other places are requiring only 6 feet.

Randolph said several studies show coronavirus can be projected at 16 feet or more.

“We decided that the best measure to protect our citizens and to allow some return to normalcy was to place the 12-feet requirement. Keep in mind there are some places that are not allowing any gathering for sporting events.”

While the number of new cases was up Thursday to 247, above the 7-day moving average of 177, the trend continues to go down, Sweat said.

Coronavirus: New cases almost double from yesterday but stay under 300

But as far as removing restrictions or reopening businesses that have been closed, Shelby County has met only two of the eight benchmarks, including that there has been a downward trend of new cases for two weeks and cases are averaging less than 180 per day.

“A crucial time is the next two weeks including with schools, games in session and Labor Day coming,” Randolph said.

In mid-July, the county hit its highest transmission rate with 300+ cases a day, peaking July 31 at 646 cases. On Aug. 7, hospitalization peaked at 360.

At that point, the positivity rate was pushing 17%. Last week’s seven-day rate was 11.3%.

Officials say the masking mandate has been the single most important factor in lowering virus trends, followed by curfews and the closing of limited-service businesses.

“We are doing better than we were,” Sweat said.

Randolph said he’s received some questions related to Health Directive No. 11, which went into effect Aug. 24. One is related to the newest mask directive.

Schools must notify at-risk contacts within 12 hours, send weekly updates

“We are pretty much requiring everyone to wear masks if you are older than age 2,” he said. “Recent evidence has shown that children can transmit the virus at the same rates as adults.”

Among other data highlighted Thursday, only 9% of cases have been among those less than 18 years old; 80% of cases in Shelby County are among people under age 55; half of the cases come from those under 45 years old.

“Look at the tendency of kids, young people gathering, one not necessarily viewing the risk like older people ... that is one of the reasons why there is risk of higher positives.”

Eighty-eight percent of deaths have occurred in people 55 and older.

Sweat said the coronavirus mortality rate locally is now 1.4% and the median age of death is 73.

Fifty-nine percent of cases are among African American citizens, while 20% are among Latinx. 

“We encourage you to continue with your efforts to be compliant with safety measures we have outlined,” Randolph said. “We are making progress. … We have not reached all levels of improvement to open up some businesses, but we are headed there.”

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Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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