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Op-Ed: The Science Says Kids Should Be Allowed To Play

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Op-Ed: The Science Says Kids Should Be Allowed To Play

Red Mountain in action from 2015.

My name is Jeff McIntyre, Assistant Coach and Team Manager at Red Mountain Youth Rugby in Mesa, Arizona and also the Boys High School Commissioner at Rugby Arizona. These views are my own and not necessarily the position of Red Mountain Youth Rugby or Rugby Arizona. 

Over the period of the coronavirus pandemic, I have spent time studying statistics, trends and studies with a view to resuming Youth and High School rugby as safely as possible. I am believer of following the science rather than media selective reporting aimed at clicks and ratings. 

I know COVID-19 can be dangerous for the elderly and for those with compromised immune systems and other health issues. Just today I viewed the funeral service of a healthy 47-year-old cousin lost to COVID related complications so I am not in denial about this virus.

But enough time, studies, experience and varied policy responses have elapsed for us to learn much more about the risks of the virus for younger people and how best to work to create an environment that could enable youth rugby to occur in the midst of the pandemic. Below are some really important data points (with links to statistics and studies) that everyone associated with youth and high school rugby ought to consider. While there is concern about the levels of positive tests and deaths due to COVID in the wider community, it is important to put the risk of COVID for teenagers in perspective.

  1. In many states, the second wave of the pandemic has peaked and statistics show good downward trends on the 7-day average for positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths. There are various states that are past the worst of this. In the largest and worst-affected school district of our club’s catchment, Mesa Public Schools, currently has only 123 current positive cases out of 67,017 students of all ages.
  2. Teenagers have much lower rates of COVID positivity and extremely low rates of hospitalization and death. Arizona’s official stats are useful for analysis because they break down COVID stats on either side of aged 20 which makes child and teen risk assessments easier than many states that lump 15-24-year-olds together. Of the 2.3 million children under 20 in AZ, only 0.0009% have died (22 in number and most were obese or had health issues) and only 0.006% have been hospitalized.
  3. The regular flu is more dangerous and potent to children. As of today, total US-wide COVID deaths of children 14 and under stands at only 121, whereas 143 children 14 and under died of the regular flu in 2019 and in some years, flu deaths of under 14 year olds have been well over 300. We didn’t stop school or school sports during all the previous flu seasons that all were more deadly for children.
  4. In Arizona 15- to 19-year-olds are 35 times more likely to die in a traffic accident; the figures in other states will be similar and yet we don’t ban teenagers from driving despite this ever-present risk of death.
  5. The stated reason for restrictions on children is always that they can pass it to older adults for whom the virus is more of a risk. But children are not major vectors of the virus especially compared to the regular flu. There are eight international studies published by top clinicians in reputable journals showing kids don’t transmit it much: IcelandAustraliaThe NetherlandsGermanyFranceUnited Kingdom, and Switzerland. The Icelandic study is significant. They contact traced every single person who had contact with everyone who had COVID and they tested all of them as well as all people known to have the virus. Then they genome sequenced all those tests and created a map that literally traced the progression of the virus through their society. It is the most comprehensive granular study of COVID in the world and in this study, no child passed COVID to an adult.
  6. Other contact sports have been played in a number of states with minimal COVID interruptions. Utah played a full season of high school football in the Fall and according to the UHSAA, only 2% of games were affected by COVID standdowns. Arizona also completed an eight-week season of football and according to the AIA, 5% of games were affected. Florida and Indiana also played a full seasons of high school football in the Fall with similar low rates of COVID interruption. Right now, many schools in less locked-down states are doing wrestling and this has as much, if not more, contact than rugby.
  7. As the virus recedes and the vaccine become more widely available, the severely locked-down states like California, Michigan, New Jersey, etc. are already slowly starting to lift restrictions.
  8. Two weeks ago Rugby Arizona’s Executive Committee voted 12 – 0 to commence regular tackle rugby on February 20 and all teams will comply with USA Rugby’s strict Return to Play Protocol including: temperature checks of players, all balls disinfected before and after games, all players to sanitize before and after, all players not on the play field and coaches to wear masks and spectators are restricted as per local city or school regulations. Some clubs operate in more restricted cities and will join our Spring competition when rules allow.
  9. I have put this last point In bold because it is by far the most important data point. The negative mental health effects of restrictions on teenagers has been documented widely by many counselors and clinicians and anecdotally by many coaches. Red Mountain Youth Rugby lost a 16-year-old player to suicide the day after USA Rugby announced its nationwide ban on playing in March 2020 (he was battling depression). One of the CDC’s own Directors acknowledged that COVID lockdowns, restrictions and negative economic impacts have caused EXCESS deaths (that is deaths ABOVE the usual average prior to the pandemic) from suicide and drug overdoses total MORE THAN DEATHS TO COVID and this was back in July 2020.

I believe that the health risks associated with COVID are, for young people, low and manageable but the mental health risks of shutting down youth sports are big and avoidable. There are no daily dashboards in the media of the collateral deaths associated with COVID.

It is a silent epidemic that is not publicized and yet is ever present. I embarked on this journey of education as to the real risks because I knew how many boys on our team were seriously hurting and longing to create a small island of normal in this crazy world by playing the game they love. To everyone within whose power it is to allow rugby this season, please consider these data points seriously as you deliberate.