Organized sports causing COVID-19 to spread, Etches says

Ottawa’s medical officer of health is warning that organized sports activities — particularly hockey — are contributing to the spread of COVID-19, with five team outbreaks confirmed and another nine under investigation.

At least 28 positive cases of COVID-19 have already been linked to team sports, and that total is expected to grow as contact tracing and testing continues, said Dr. Vera Etches on Wednesday morning.

This is a lot of people affected.– Dr. Vera Etches

These cases have already forced hundreds of people who are close contacts of those who’ve tested positive to self-isolate and get tested themselves.

“This is a lot of people affected,” said Etches of the 14 teams, both adult and youth, under investigation.

“I also want to stress that COVID-19 doesn’t stay isolated to just players and coaches,” she told reporters. “We are also seeing the transmission subsequently occur to family members, friends, classmates and work colleagues. It shows again how easily COVID-19 can spread.”

According to Etches, the transmission is occurring during the activities themselves, but also in locker rooms and when participants share food and carpool with those outside their households. It’s also occurring when individuals are involved with more than one team, and because people still aren’t wearing masks.

There are provincially mandated restrictions on team sports in Ottawa, which is currently considered a COVID-19 hot spot in Ontario. 

No games or scrimmages

Games and scrimmages are currently banned in both indoor or outdoor settings, and participants are supposed to engage only in skill-training activities, with no contact allowed. For sports like hockey and ringette, only 10 people are allowed on the ice at a time. For outdoor sports like football, 25 people can participate at any one time. Locker rooms are for storage and washroom use only.

Players and coaches are supposed to keep two metres apart at all times, and everyone is to wear a mask other than during “vigorous physical activity.” Carpooling and tailgate parties are not allowed, either.

The Brockville Braves under 18 hockey team holds a practice with physical distancing. (Dan Mellon)

Organized sports outbreaks are becoming such a concern that Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is adding team outbreaks to its daily statistical reporting, known as the “dashboard,” but individual teams will not be named.

Despite the concern around sports activities, Etches is not calling for any further restrictions in Ottawa. She said the goals of the COVID-19 measures are first to minimize hospitalizations and deaths by reducing the level of COVID-19 in the community, and second to minimize “societal disruptions.”

“We need to find ways to get through the next six months,” said Etches. “What can we do over that period to keep physically active? That’s important for our mental health and our physical health.

“It’s not always about more restrictions, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed,” Etches told reporters. “It’s recognizing that we ourselves have the power to reduce the risk to ourselves and to others in our community through those simple behaviours.”

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