Despite Big Ten’s Reversal, Pritzker Says Youth Sports in Illinois Will Remain on Hold

Video: Dr. George Chiampas, an emergency medicine and sports medicine doctor at Northwestern Medical, and John Holecek, head football coach at Loyola Academy and a former NFL linebacker, talk about playing sports amid the pandemic.

On the same day Big Ten university presidents and chancellors voted to resume football and other fall sports, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said elementary and high school teams in Illinois will not see a return to play just yet.

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Citing a lack of widespread safety protocols and limited COVID-19 testing capacity, the governor on Wednesday doubled down on his stance that it’s not yet safe for youth athletes to begin playing football or other fall sports.

“Under no circumstances will I put children and their families at risk,” Pritzker said. “To those claiming that putting your child in danger is about personal choice, I say: This is a pandemic. This is a terrible and unprecedented moment in our country. Living together in a free society means neighbors protecting each other so that we can all enjoy freedom and safety.”

But Pritzker has faced pushback from parents and athletes who are demanding youth sports return this fall.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said athletics can amplify the spread of the disease because players are in more close contact for longer periods of time with several other players and coaches, both on the field and inside locker rooms.

And Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist from Rush University Medical Center, said contact team sports like football and hockey can become super spreading events very easily, beginning with just a single positive case.

“With every youth athlete there’s a parent or maybe a sibling or a grandparent who may be at risk for terrible outcomes from COVID-19 disease,” he said. “Youth sports do not operate in a vacuum and if COVID-19 spreads among our young athletes, it becomes a risk for our entire community.”

The IDPH on Wednesday reported 1,941 new COVID-19 cases and 35 additional deaths, bringing the statewide totals up to 266,151 and 8,367, respectively.

Every state bordering Illinois has reportedly allowed high school football to go on this fall. The Illinois High School Association is currently planning to play its high school football season in the spring.

The Big Ten Conference’s about-face came just five weeks after those same presidents and chancellors voted to postpone the upcoming football season. One of the main drivers for that reversal was the emergence of daily, rapid-response COVID-19 testing.

But Pritzker and Ezike noted that many elementary and high schools don’t have the same resources that universities and pro sports leagues do to provide athletes with that daily testing or to isolate them from the general public as the NBA and NHL have with their respective bubbles.

“Nobody wants kids to sit on the sidelines, nobody wants kids to not be in schools,” Ezike said. “Everybody wants the same endpoint and we’re trying to just get there in the safest way possible.”

In the Big Ten, team positivity rates and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine whether teams must halt practice or play. If an athlete is diagnosed with COVID-19, they must wait 21 says after the positive diagnosis, undergo a cardiac evaluation and receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university before being allowed to return game competition. 

Even with those precautions in place, Lin said outbreaks have still occurred.

Ezike said things like lower positivity rates and less community spread of COVID-19 could eventually lead to a return to play. But she didn’t give specific benchmarks those data points must hit before youth sports can resume.

More information is also needed, she said, about the effects of the disease on children and teens, specifically in regards to myocarditis – a type of cardiac inflammation that may be caused by COVID-19.

“As we get all of that information and as we try to identify ways that we might be able to treat or prevent some of those serious complications, as we see what thresholds for positivity might decrease the risk enough for sports to happen, the high-risk sports, we’re gonna be assembling all of that information and using what’s happening in other settings as well to try and make the most informed decisions,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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