Dr. Christopher Ohl is an acknowledged expert on infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Health. But he’s also the parent of two athletes and an admitted sports fan.
So when Ohl says he’s concerned about resuming high school and college athletics in the fall amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth listening.
“I'm not one to say that I should be making all these decisions — and I'm glad I'm not, because they're very difficult decisions,” Ohl says, “but I’ve got a feeling that both with high school and college fall athletics they'll all get started and it'll seem OK for a couple or three weeks and then we're going to be making some tough decisions about the future of the season.”
Ohl has no doubt that “there will be cases. You know it's just going to happen.”
“It’s not inconceivable that somebody could get it and die,” Ohl adds. “It's unlikely, but it's possible. So are we ready as a society to accept that? In a high school kid? Not my kid.”
High school and college sports were shut down in mid-March after some professional athletes began to test positive for the virus. The NCAA canceled its basketball tournaments and eventually spring sports, the N.C. High School Athletic Association canceled its basketball championships two days before the games were to be played and halted spring sports after contests of March 13.
The NCAA has said some sports can hold limited workouts starting Monday but has extended its dead period for campus recruiting visits and in-person recruiting contacts through July 31. The NCHSAA’s dead period banning all activities has been extended at least through June 15, but no high school games will be held in the fall unless students are allowed to return to classrooms.
The questions are when sports can safely resume and what precautions need to be taken to limit the spread of the virus.
“What we need to ask ourselves now and our leaders in high school and college athletics need to come to terms with now is what level of infection or an outbreak in one of my sports teams am I going to be comfortable with?” Ohl says. “And what will I consider to be acceptable? Is it three people getting COVID on your football team, one of whom gets hospitalized, and hopefully no one dies because they're young and otherwise healthy?”
The National Federation of State High School Associations has issued recommendations to the NCHSAA and other state associations that group sports into three levels of risk.
“Not all sports are alike, right?” Ohl says. “There's a varying degree of contact and all of that. Cross country and track and field are not the same as wrestling.”
Contact sports such as wrestling, basketball and especially football present particularly significant challenges in limiting the spread of COVID-19.
“Obviously for the contact sport itself it's going to be almost impossible,” Ohl says. “You're going to have people getting together and by nature they're supposed to have contact with each other.”
Ohl has been advising Wake Forest’s football program, “and even just trying to work through training is difficult. Not impossible, but, boy, you have to spend a lot of time and thought on it in changing the way you do things.”
He says that conducting workouts outside, wearing masks and maintaining appropriate social distance are all crucial. In fact, Ohl says, “for a person actively exercising there probably should be more than 6 feet (of separation). They actually might want to double it, and that's just for the training situations.”
An additional concern in training, Ohl says, is cardio exercise in which pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic athletes unknowingly spread the virus.
“You move a lot more air in those situations," he says. "You expel respiratory product and particles. ... If you're in a closed space, then the cardio machines that you're on or working with or just the sheer movement of all those people stir the virus up and keep it from settling out and it stays in the air.”
Ohl says he doesn’t “see a lot of major problems in pulling off” lower-risk sports such as cross country and golf, “even with a fair amount of COVID still around.”
But football, which generates significant revenue for most high school and college athletics programs that field teams, may present the greatest challenge in limiting the spread of the virus if games are played with spectators.
“If you’ve ever been to a high school football game you know the issues,” Ohl says. The goal of students and young people attending games, he adds, “is to be as minimally personally distant as possible.”
There has been some talk of moving high school football to the spring for the 2020-21 school year in the hope that the virus will not pose as great a threat then, but Ohl says, “I don’t know if that’s far enough out.” He sees “an ugly flu season” leading into the spring.
As the father of former college baseball pitcher Cameron Ohl and current West Forsyth runner Langdon Luther, the doctor appreciates what sports can do for young people. But he also sees the potential health risks posed by COVID-19.
“I hate to be pessimistic,” he says, “but the big worry is can we even get through the entire school year without having to shut down again. These are the big questions, to our society and to our kids and to our schools. That’s the bigger one than whether we can pull off football.”