New safety guidelines for 'high-contact' sports announced

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Certain sports in Washington are subject to new safety guidelines after a massive COVID-19 outbreak at four high school wrestling tournaments led to some 200 cases of the virus.

On Friday, Dec. 17, the Department of Health released these updated safety measures for high-contact sports, including basketball, wrestling, water polo and competitive cheer:

- Required testing of all athletes, coaches, trainers and support personnel, regardless of vaccination status.

- Testing should be three times a week, ideally with a test the day before the competition or day of the event.

The department also reiterated that masks are required indoors at these types of sporting events for all spectators, athletes and coaches, except when someone is actively competing.

The superspreader tournaments Dec. 4 have been connected to confirmed cases of the omicron variant, indicating its potential for rapid spread. The high school wrestling tournaments were attended by schools in Clark and Cowlitz counties, among others. 

Public health officials and modelers are expecting COVID-19 case counts to skyrocket soon due to the variant, currently only confirmed in Western Washington but expected to spread to other areas quickly.

In other countries, omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, Trevor Bedford, computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told reporters on Dec. 17. This means that by Dec. 22, King County could have more than 2,000 daily omicron cases, which is three times the number of cases seen at the pandemic's peak in the county.

"I am certain they will be the highest case counts we've seen in the pandemic," Bedford said.



This is already happening in New York City, in part due to omicron.

The amount of omicron cases detected at the University of Washington Virology Lab continues to increase steeply, likely surpassing samples of the delta variant in the coming weeks. Currently 40% of isolates screened by the UW lab are being confirmed as omicron.

Case counts are starting to edge up again in King County as a result.

Health officials expect many people will get infected in a short timeframe, including people who are fully vaccinated. So far, data from other countries and limited data in the United States show that those who are fully vaccinated and contract omicron have a mild illness.

But when so many people get infected, some will need hospitalization, and that is what concerns health officials in Washington, with hospital occupancy currently at 91%.

"When so many people are infected in such a short time frame, it can mean a lot of people needing hospitalization at once," King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin told reporters on Friday.

"Vaccination alone will not be enough to stop the spread of omicron. We need to take advantage of as many layers as we can," he added.

Duchin encouraged using high quality KN95 or N95 masks, avoiding large indoor gatherings, improving ventilation and using rapid tests before seeing others.

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