LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Here’s the saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s on posters and bumper stickers. Kelly Clarkson sings it to us. And these days, it is the chorus from people saying that COVID-19 doesn’t really kill young people, so let’s get on with school and college football and more.
It’s not a crackpot opinion. There are benefits to in-person school and sports that can’t be denied. Experts from pediatrics and education agree that getting kids into school, in-person, should happen as soon as it is safe. Likewise, college athletes do most of their mixing with coaches and other college students and can be restricted from other settings a little more easily than your normal college student. What's the hold-up?
It's this: The situation with young people and COVID-19 does not occur in a vacuum. If you listen to a certain segment of armchair epidemiologists, “death rate” is the only thing that matters. They're wrong.
In reality, what doesn’t kill us doesn’t always make us stronger. I had a stroke almost two years ago. It did not make me stronger. It made me weaker physically. I can’t even do mentally what I once did. (COVID-19, by the way, has caused strokes and heart attacks in young people.) Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you darn near kills you, or at the very least, slams on your brakes.
As I watch cases rise in the southeast and around the nation, particularly among teens and young adults, I am more and more convinced that it is not deaths from this virus that are driving the current disruption. It’s the cases.
And it’s not only the basic health ramifications of the coronavirus that are making both school districts and universities press pause but simple logistics.
We live in a country so connected and on-edge that a dozen over-the-road truckers testing positive in one company can cause supply-chain issues all over the country. Every plant that has to shut down touches countless businesses and communities, the ripple effects disrupting plans in areas you’d never think about — until you encounter them.
In Kentucky, only one person under the age of 20 has died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. You hear that stat, and you’re likely to say that sports and schools are good to go. Get them back. Put on the pads.
But the problem here isn’t death rate. It’s rate of spread. The University of Louisville brought its basketball team back, tested everybody, had them take every precaution and still had to shut things down last week because two people in the program tested positive. Two people, and the whole thing has to shut down for two weeks.
Multiply that by 15 basketball programs in the ACC. By more than 300 in Division I.
Football, perhaps, has a better chance to get going just because there are more bodies. One guy gets sick, you sit him for two weeks, test everyone who was close to him and sit them for an NCAA-mandated 14 days (according to guidelines released Thursday). In reality, you could lose a whole position room. And that’s fine as we’re sitting here in the middle of July, but what happens if it’s the middle of the season?
You don't have to go far for an example. Indiana football on Friday announced that six players tested positive for COVID. All voluntary workouts in the program have been shut down.
And players testing positive are just one scenario. What if it’s not a player? What if it’s a graduate assistant? What if it’s a position coach who worked with every player at a given position? What if, heaven forbid, one of those people gets seriously ill?
The NCAA is calling for mandatory testing with results available within 72 hours after each game. How many schools could be out of the mix just because they can’t manage that, either because they can’t afford it, or don’t have a medical school that can swing it? And what if cases keep rising, and tests are needed for the general population?
When conferences brought players back to campus in June, tests were plentiful, and it looked as if cases were dropping. Now they’re rising again, dramatically in some states, and already the backlog of tests and availability is getting a bit more difficult.
At the high school level, the logistics are even more challenging. One problem you probably haven’t thought about – helmets. State safety rules require that helmets be reconditioned to meet safety standards every year. Many schools haven’t gotten their helmets back because of COVID-19 shutdowns around the nation, and many may not have them before late August.
Testing at the high school level is even more problematic. State school systems can’t afford extensive testing. While a college player may be hanging out mostly with other college kids, a high school player who gets infected is going home to his family, to parents, or grandparents. If one of those parents is a truck driver, see above. Or fill in the blank with any job. Think about the sickness and the time off that illness generates, or think about the quarantine and the time off that generates. Or maybe the parent decides not to risk his or her job and just keeps going to work, and the possible danger that causes. And what if there are medical bills? Who pays for those?
No matter the age, a handful of positive tests can create a room full of problems for high school programs and local families. And we know cases can spread among young people and those working with them. In Kentucky, we’re seeing a rising number of cases in day cares.
Pro sports leagues can keep their players in a “bubble,” and even that doesn’t stop positive tests. Colleges and, particularly, high schools, can’t do that.
Two final things, and I’m anticipating the Twitter experts here:
1). Kids and college athletes get the flu and we don’t cancel entire seasons, so why is it under consideration now? That’s fair. The answer: We have a vaccine for the flu; and we have some treatments, such as Tamiflu, though nothing is completely effective. In other words, we have measures. And particularly because of the vaccine, flu is not as contagious as COVID. We have nothing at present to stop the spread of coronavirus besides distancing and masks and hygiene. And clearly, from looking around the nation, we’re not doing a very good job at any of that. (For an example, mention the word “mask” in a crowd.)
2). Why should we live in fear? The virus is among us; we have to let life go on. I sympathize with this viewpoint too. We all want life to go on. We want to get back to normal. But I’m telling you, that’s what they wanted in Florida. That’s what they wanted in Georgia. That’s what they wanted in Arizona and Alabama and Mississippi and South Carolina. Just wanting something to be so does not make it a reality. Your political beliefs, and mine, deeply held as they might be, do not matter. Viruses act how they act, and we have to act in certain ways to fight them — together — or we just wind up getting pummeled until the thing runs its course.
We had a chance to pin this virus down in May and June with numbers declining, and instead we got in a hurry to move on. We gambled that the virus was fizzling out, and we lost. It isn’t. We wanted to get back to our lives, and we wanted it bad. As my old boss at The Courier-Journal Jim Bauer used to say, “You want it bad, you get it bad.”
I don’t know if we’re going to have football this fall, or what it will look like if we do, or if any of us will get to go to games even if they have them.
I do think people are waking up to the fact that this virus is real and isn’t going to just go away. I don’t think we need to make it more fearsome than it is. Progress is being made medically. We’re steadily developing ways to treat it. A vaccine could be close.
But we are living now in an example of what happens if we get in too big a hurry. We wanted it bad, and we now have it bad – again.
Morgue trucks being ordered in Phoenix. Hospitals are filling up in Miami. We’re waking up to realize that teamwork is required to move past this — and as a nation, teamwork is not our best thing lately.
James Carville famously coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” during the presidential election of 1992. Right now, it’s the cases, stupid. As long as they are growing the way they are, we’re not moving on the way we thought we would.
This virus remains a deadly threat. And even if it doesn’t kill us, it is not making us stronger.
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