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Crater confirms two positive COVID-19 tests

CENTRAL POINT — After learning of two positive results from COVID-19 testing among his high school student-athletes this week, Crater High Athletic Director David Heard confirmed Wednesday that he has elected to shut down all athletic activities until Nov. 9 in order to err on the side of caution.

The family of a junior who has participated in the boys basketball team’s optional workouts this fall notified Heard of their son’s positive result Monday morning, and that was followed by a notification Tuesday of another positive result for a sophomore in the football program.

Heard said there is no correlation between the two student-athletes, so each test result was independent of the other. He added that both students are currently “a little symptomatic, but they’re fine.”

Heard notified each of Crater’s head coaches and they, in turn, notified their participating athletes of the school’s decision to suspend all athletic activities Tuesday. Activities for basketball and speech and debate were first canceled Monday.

“These are the first two cases,” said Heard, “and I’m hoping that if we shut things down until Nov. 9 and then re-evaluate, that hopefully we can get back to it then and those kids will be healthy and no other cases show up. In the next two weeks, if I’ve got four or five kids that kind of branch out from this and people start having it, then we’re going to stay shut down.”

Given the realities of any virus, much less the coronavirus, the odds were always there that some athletes would eventually test positive here locally, as has happened nationally at the high school, college and professional levels, regardless of protocols in place.

Southern Oregon University temporarily suspended its athletic programs last Friday after one athlete and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 but resumed on-campus activities Wednesday.

Central Point School District Superintendent Samantha Steele said Wednesday that a girls soccer player at Crater had tested positive this summer but hadn’t been involved with any other athletes or in any activities so the potential impact wasn’t like it was this week.

Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach echoed Heard in noting there have been rumors of other programs here in the Rogue Valley who have faced their own issues.

“I’m not sure this is the first time that it’s happened, it’s probably the first time that it’s been made public,” said Schmerbach of the high-school level action. “I’ve heard of a couple other programs this summer that had outbreaks but I don’t want to throw anyone under the carpet. I have a feeling there’s been other instances, for sure.”

At Crater, athletes have been required to wear a mask and observe 6-foot social distancing as much as possible during their training since the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon School Activities Association allowed for such gatherings in June.

Athletes have worked out in small pods to allow for better contact tracing, and access to school facilities has been staggered to allow for less risk of exposure.

“We try to do a really good job, I think, and Dave has done a really good job of outlining the protocols to follow in order to make it a safe environment if there is someone that’s positive,” said Schmerbach. “The coaches have done a really good job of just harping on players that you can’t enter a facility until the other team is done, you can’t hang out outside before workouts and you have to leave immediately after them. All of the guidelines passed down from the OHA have been followed as best as we can. I know I’ve told my kids that if they even have a sniffle, do not come to these workouts.”

Steele fully supported Heard’s decision, and spoke with pride in how prepared the Crater High athletic department and its coaches were to appropriately handle this situation.

“I thought that David Heard’s response and the coaches’ response was immediate and they followed every protocol,” said Steele. “David chose to, which was appropriate, shut down fall sports for two weeks to assure that we wouldn’t have any potential for further cases.”

“When we needed to provide contact information for every student athlete to the Jackson County Health Department,” she added, “an email went to (football) head coach Berk Brown that I was copied on and I think he responded with the information within 10 minutes with all of the contact information, which speaks to the protocols that were already in place to not only prevent, to the extent possible, the potential cases of COVID but to be prepared with that cohort information, the contact information, so that if there was potential exposure the health department and the school district could respond immediately.”

Schmerbach said the basketball player involved showed no symptoms when the group met last Tuesday and did not come to the team’s Thursday workout because he wasn’t feeling well.

“They then did their own testing because they had a feeling something was not right,” said Schmerbach. “They tested and then did the right thing by reaching back and contacting other people that were involved or he was around as soon as possible.”

The player in question attended only two boys basketball workouts, and Schmerbach said he was immediately able to turn over his participation logs to Heard, who then forwarded that information to health department officials so they could handle the contact tracing.

In the case of the football player, Heard said he hadn’t been training or participating in 7-on-7 workouts with the team “for the last week and a half” because he was feeling symptomatic.

Heard requested participation logs from his coaches dating back to Oct. 15 to provide for a detailed look at the potential impact from each athlete.

“I feel pretty good about it,” he said of limiting potential exposure. “I didn’t have to shut everything down, we just went a little extra to try and stay ahead of it a little bit. We just think it’s a good idea right now with two cases back to back.”

Heard said the difficulty with enforcing all the protocols is that once athletes get away from the practice field or gym, all bets are off.

“That’s the scary thing that we can’t control and that’s when the county, I think, comes in and says who’s your girlfriend, who is this person, who is that person,” said Heard. “Because I might have a football player who plays on the JV football team and I could sit the JV football team down, but if he has a bunch of friends on the varsity that he hangs out with away from campus ... really a lot of the issues is their social group. You can control what’s going on at campus, but you can’t control who’s staying at who’s house and that kind of stuff.”

“The issue honestly with athletics or kids in general is the contract tracing,” he added. “When you start doing the contact tracing, your web gets really big with athletics and kids.”

Steele and Heard agreed, however, the importance of the public not reading too much into this week’s events or the suspension of activities.

“We’ve been doing (athletic workouts) since June and we have two cases?” said Heard. “Statistically, that’s really, really low for the contact they have every day and all these schools involved. It’s not like there’s an outbreak. This isn’t an outbreak, this is just me being super cautious with what we’ve got going on.”

Heard and Steele were adamant about the benefits of athletics and extracurricular activities in the lives of students, and spoke about how communities have dealt with contagious diseases for years, most notably Influenza A or B, and found a way to move forward responsibly.

“We are very respectful of COVID and we’ve implemented every possible protocol to keep our kids and staff safe,” said Steele, “but we also recognize the importance of finding a path to being able to have kids participate in athletics and activities in school.”

“What we know now compared to what we knew in July as we were preparing for the school year is that the school districts in schools that have been opened haven’t had super-spreader hotspots,” she added. “They’ve had COVID case rates at about the same rate as the community at large, so that data has changed and that may ultimately impact what the state of Oregon does with respect to schools and athletics and activities. We need to find a path to be able to have these athletic events and activities again.”

Currently, on direction from the OHA and Gov. Kate Brown, the OSAA has delayed the start of all official athletic events until Dec. 28, which is the opening day for Season 1 winter sports. Season 2 (fall sports) and Season 3 (spring sports) are expected to follow in eight-week increments through June 2021.

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Crater's football program, like all Comets sports teams, has adhered to safety protocols requiring the wearing of masks and social distancing when possible but it learned of one positive virus test result this week, along with one player in the boys basketball program. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune