How hockey rinks may make it easier for COVID-19 to spread

Dr. Michael Osterholm reckons the cool and warm air in a rink can trap the virus.
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Participating in sports while infectious with COVID-19 presents a risk you pass it on to someone else, but the risk is potentially higher for hockey players.

This week has seen Hill-Murray's varsity hockey team forced to withdraw from the state tournament due to a possible COVID-19 exposure, and Dr. Michael Osterholm says that hockey rinks can serve as an easy breeding ground for the virus' transmission.

"It creates this perfect bubble for the sharing of the virus. The cold air of the actual rink, with the glass surrounding it, holds the cold air down. The hot air is like a dome on top of it, so you don't really get great ventilation on an ice-skating rink," Osterholm explained during an appearance on WCCO Radio

"You put one person out there who's infected and let them skate around out there, you basically have this virus trapped down inside the rink and very easily you can transmit the virus to many people," Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, continued. "That's happened on a number of occasions in the state already."

Does the Minnesota Department of Health agree with Osterholm's theory? Sort of. The health department responded to Osterholm's theory with a statement to Bring Me The News

"We're aware that there there’s been a lot of speculation about on SAR-CoV-2 viability and/or transmission in ice hockey rinks but there are still more questions than answers due to a lack of published research. The bottom line is that COVID-19 cases do occur in persons who play sports, and can be a result of social interactions among teammates, engaging in the sport itself, or a combination. Because of this we encourage players, coaches and families to follow the straightforward practices we are all familiar with – wearing masks when in public, observing social distancing guidelines, staying home when sick or exposed to someone with COVID-19, and getting tested when appropriate.

"For kids involved in any extra-curricular activities or sports where social distancing is not possible, we recommend getting tested every week and 2-3 days before games and competitions. This will help limit the spread, avoid pauses to sports/activities, and keep kids in the classroom."

170 outbreaks linked to hockey activities in Minnesota

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, there have been 170 outbreaks contract traced to hockey since June 2020. An outbreak is defined as "two or more cases on the same team or in the same sports program with symptom onset date or collection date within 14 days of one another."

Of the 170 outbreaks, 100 are linked to high school hockey, including 13 outbreaks in the last seven-day reporting period (Week ending Mar. 20). A further 47 have been traced to elementary/middle school-aged hockey events. 

Basketball has the next most outbreaks: 118, including 90 high school basketball events. 

In total, the health department has confirmed 548 outbreaks from sports activities since June 2020, resulting in 2,626 cases, including 142 for the Week ending Mar. 20. 

Hill-Murray could have played with one-day delay, but MSHSL said no

Hill-Murray won its section title game over White Bear Lake to advance to the state tournament, but the varsity players were not allowed to play in the opening round of the tournament because a White Bear Lake player tested positive for COVID-19 two days after the Mar. 24 game. 

According to Hill-Murray, the school was alerted to the potential exposure on Mar. 28, with health department recommendations – that the Minnesota State High School League follows – prohibiting Hill-Murray's varsity team from participating in any contents until 7 days after the exposure. 

Hill-Murray's seventh day following the exposure just happened to fall on the opening day of the state tournament, when they were scheduled to play Wayzata in the Class 2A quarterfinals at 11 a.m. Wednesday. 

Had the tournament started one day later, there would've been no issues with Hill-Murray participating, so long as team members were healthy. 

Hill-Murray and Wayzata supported the idea of moving the game to Thursday, but the MSHSL didn't grant the request. Instead, Hill-Murray was forced to bow out, ending what was a successful season in which they had a shot to repeat as the big school state champion. 

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The parents of nine Hill-Murray players, all of whom are legal adults, filed a lawsuit against the MSHSL seeking a temporary restraining order, but a Washington County judge denied the request. 

In a letter sent to varsity hockey families late Tuesday, Hill-Murray President Jill Hansen and Athletics Director John Pohl jointly stated that "none of our players" were near the White Bear Lake player who tested positive for COVID-19 for "more than a few seconds," adding that no Hill-Murray player had face-to-face contact with him.

"Although we remain a proud member of the MSHSL, we are deeply saddened by this outcome. We know how important the state tournament experience is for our players. They've worked extremely hard and have dreamed about this moment all their lives," the joint statement said. 

COVID-19 exposures also knocked the majority of Hermantown's roster out of the Class 1A state tournament, though Hermantown elected to give its junior varsity a team a shot to play on the biggest high school hockey stage in St. Paul. They lost to Dodge Center on Tuesday night.

Osterholm warned during his appearance that the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 in Minnesota – fueled by the B.1.1.7 variant – is "going to get a lot worse before it gets better," despite the progress Minnesota is making in its vaccination program.

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