The number of COVID-19 positive cases are up in Michigan, that is not in dispute.
But are we really sure that high school athletics is the driving force behind the spike?
To listen to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, high school athletics is at the root of the increase.
How do they know that for certain?
High school students have tested positive at a higher rate recently and many of those students are athletes. But are those related or just a coincidence?
Let’s just say there are some weekend parties in a community like, say, Oxford, and a bunch of students wind up testing positive for COVID-19. If some of those at the parties were athletes and they test positive, too, does the state think those cases are athletically related?
It certainly seems that way if you listen to some of our state leaders.
“Due to the many outbreaks linked to sports, this new order requires youth athletes, ages 13 to 19 years old, to take part in a weekly testing program to participate in athletic practices or competitions,” Khaldun said at a news conference Friday.
“This (new state order) is important because we’ve seen so many outbreaks associated with sports teams, and we want to identify any cases as soon as possible and prevent spread,”
High school athletics is taking an undeserved hit here, which was painfully obvious Friday morning when Whitmer and Khaldun announced plans to test middle school and high school athletes.
Beginning April 2 high school athletes will undergo COVID-19 antigen testing, but the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services didn’t provide the MHSAA with exact details.
“We think much of it will be similar to what was done in the fall pilot program, which is what’s been going on for weeks in wrestling,” Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl said Friday in a Zoom meeting with the media. “It will be the same general approach to our other sports, but we just don’t have those details at this time.”
Athletes in spring sports, which begin practice Monday, will also be tested, but other details like wearing masks remain unanswered at this time.
When the football and volleyball state playoffs resumed in January, athletes were tested three times a week.
There will be 896 wrestlers remaining in the state tournament on April 2, but they have been undergoing tests on days of competition all season.
The girls and boys basketball tournaments will be at the quarterfinal level on April 2, leaving 32 girls and 32 boys teams, approximately 950 athletes.
The MDHHS picked up the cost for the testing so this will not be another cost to parents or schools and should be handled quite simply.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes for our kids to play and play safely,” said Uyl. “Going back to late December when we talked about the pilot program for fall, the logistics and the hurdles in front of that seemed quite daunting, but we were able to pull that off and pull that off quite quickly.”
The big change is the new order will also apply to club and travel teams involving 13-to-19-year-olds. Until now, programs like travel hockey and baseball and AAU basketball were able to operate without any accountability.
Testing athletes is good, but to pin the rise in COVID-19 cases on high school athletics is ridiculous.
“There have been a lot of other things over the past six to eight weeks that have also been amended in the orders whether it’s indoor dining or different business and those kinds of things,” Uyl said.
“It’s been a challenge for all of us to get data on outbreaks, getting data on exactly what was the source of the positive cases.”
No one is disputing the rise in positive cases, but it seems like state officials are adding two and two and are coming up with 17 when they point to high school athletic events as the culprit.
School administrators do not look at high school basketball games as superspreader events.
“Listening to a lot of our school administrators, there is still some skepticism that this is being transmitted during a basketball game or a practice,” Uyl said. “It’s more likely when you’re getting kids, who on a Friday or a Saturday night after the game, after practice, who are hanging out in social setting.
“This is something we continue to hear over and over from our school administrators.”
Basketball players in Michigan have been playing with masks all season, which should be a difference-maker for our athletes.
But the puzzling thing for Uyl is comparing Michigan athletes with those in neighboring states in Indiana and Ohio.
“In Indiana and Ohio, they’ve not only been playing winter indoor sports since November,” he said, “but they’ve been doing that without masks and those numbers in those surrounding states are roughly half of what ours are today.”
That should lead you to believe that athletic teams might not be the reason for the rise in positive COVID-19 numbers.
The basketball state tournaments begin Monday and Tuesday and many coaches and players fear they may not be able to complete it.
In the football and volleyball state playoffs, several teams have withdrawn after athletes tested positive.
As of Friday afternoon, 24 girls basketball teams and 21 boys teams will not compete in the state tournaments. Some teams canceled this week’s games as a precaution against having a player test positive before the tournament.
“It’s awful,” Uyl said. “The reason that we been advocating for safe participation going back to August is the fact that we think that kids deserve seasons, kids deserve closure of those seasons.”
Part of the problem is entire teams are placed in quarantine for 10 to 14 days by an overly cautious county health department even when an opposing player tests positive, regardless of how many players were within 6 feet of him or her, which is not the case in Ohio.
A simple change in that procedure alone would make all the difference in the world to a team.
“We’ve worn masks and were hoping that when you went back and did the contact tracing that would be part of the elements that would be considered,” Uyl said. “These have not been easy days for anyone in high school sports administration.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Save $10 on his new book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” by ordering right now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com.