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Mitigating Risk: Return to Recreational Sports Post COVID-19

In light of the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, campus recreation centers are faced with the challenge of determining when and how to safely reopen their doors.

Although every program, business, company and sport entity are similarly trying to navigate a safe return, campus recreation has found itself in a unique position. While intercollegiate athletics and professional sport programs are receiving mandates through their governing bodies and under the direction of chief medical officers, collegiate intramural and club sport programs have no set standards. It is up to the individual institution to determine how and when to return.

Ideally, this decision-making process should be led by any employed medical professionals, such as an athletic trainer hired specifically to work with club and intramural sports. The athletic trainer is on the frontlines of the facility, understanding what is required for both safety and feasibility. Additional input from student health and medical directors should be considered, especially in those programs where no on-site medical professionals are employed within campus recreation.

Below are a few steps that should be considered in the development of recreational sport COVID-19 policies. 

Stay Current with Research: What we know about SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is constantly evolving. Staying current with the latest COVID-19 updates is critical in mitigating risk in campus recreation centers, especially because it may change current policies and procedures. There is a plethora of information on coronavirus, so it is important to know which information is reliable and most important to digest. Make sure to check the CDC, WHO, university/college mandates, and your state and county executive orders at a minimum. Additional considerations come into play for each program area (i.e. aquatics, fitness, intramurals, etc.) as their national governing bodies may release best practice documents.

Related: Keeping Informed Amidst Changing Times

Staff Education: It is essential that all staff members are up to date on any policies and procedures implemented for coronavirus; leaders should be aware of the most current research and disseminate pertinent information to the staff as it becomes available. Inherently there will be participants and staff members who have opposing views on what a “right” decision is, which is why communication is paramount during this time in order to be an effective team/institution. If the staff is not well versed, important information may fall through the cracks and leave your institution at risk. Educated staff members lead to educated participants, which will inherently mitigate risk. Everyone is a risk manager. 

Clear signage: Inevitably there will be those who are unaware of the risk of participating in recreational activities during COVID-19. Clear signage should communicate these risks so that all participants can make an informed decision regarding their health. This is especially important for those with predisposing conditions, increased risk factors, or those who cannot medically wear a mask. This is a major challenge for not only athletic trainers, but also recreational staff — especially if athletic trainers are not employed — since most participants do not undergo pre-participation exams prior to engaging in recreational activities.

Action Plans: In the event of a COVID-19 diagnosis within campus recreation, regardless of patron or staff member, there should be clear management and communication strategies in place. A key feature of these plans should include a communication tree, identifying a COVID-19 Point of Contact and subsequent method for notifying any close contacts. This process will need to be tailored to each program area; for example, a club sport team may consider exchanging a roster with contact information for each competition with the opposing team. For all recreational activities, there should be accurate documentation of the names and contact information for all participants, including team members, coaches and officials for contact tracing purposes. Feasible methods of identifying and preventing cases and close contacts from participation until their isolation/quarantine period is over should be implemented. Finally, any criteria for clearance to return to campus recreation facilities following a COVID-19 diagnosis should be considered and included in the action plan.

Gradual Return to Play: More research is coming out indicating cardiological, renal, respiratory and hematological complications post COVID-19 infection. This poses a higher risk to return to sport, especially if the institution does not have an athletic trainer on staff to monitor or medically clear participants to play. If an athletic trainer is employed, and depending on the feasibility of the institution, a gradual return to play should be implemented and supervised post COVID-19 diagnosis. One model for return-to-play, published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, includes 6 stages under medical supervision and should be considered for implementation. Support from higher administration will be crucial in ensuring that the AT is able to collect the information needed to keep all participants safe. If no ATs are available, staff education will be key in monitoring the participants during activity and in educating participants on when to seek further medical assistance. A graded return to play is also crucial to those who have not had COVID-19, as many institutions require masks to be worn during activity which will lead to increased time to fatigue compared to when a mask is not required. Lastly, many have gone months without access to gyms or sports and may have diminished overall fitness levels.

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