The state health department surprised Michigan High School Athletic Association officials on Friday, when it extended its ban on contact sports to Feb. 21, but the organization overseeing prep sports in the state will be advocating for an earlier start to the winter season.
In a Wednesday interview on Bill Simonson’s sports talk radio program The Huge Show, MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said he’s asking the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to reconsider last week’s decision to delay the start of winter contact sports from Feb. 1 to Feb. 21.
“For us, just to say, ‘Well, the new order is pushed back to February 21, and that’s just what we’re going to wait around for,’ that is not our approach right now,” Uyl said. “We are trying to get the data, the information to those decision makers, along with an ask that the timetable –because remember, we still have, in our schools, a lot of schedules that were built based on games starting in hockey on February 1, and basketball on February 4, and wrestling and competitive cheer on February 8, and that is currently our ask, and we’ll see if we get some reconsideration with some of the change in leadership at Health and Human Services.”
MDHHS Director Robert Gordon announced his resignation Friday afternoon, which came just hours after the state health department delayed the start of the seasons for girls and boys basketball, competitive cheer, hockey and wrestling.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Elizabeth Hertel to the post on Friday, and Uyl said the early relationship between the MHSAA new leader of the MDHHS is off to a promising start.
“I can say that with the change in leadership going back to last Friday, that already, we have noticed a drastic change in the communication and openness to dialogue,” Uyl said. “Our communication has been as good in the last three days as it has been in the last three months, so I can let everybody know that we have, again, provided this data now to those in leadership positions.
“Certainly with HHS, some of those faces are different than what they were last week. Again, just trying to share all of the data, all of the metrics going back to last August, and those are the channels that we’re aggressively working through right now.”
The data Uyl referenced includes numbers from the football regular season, which wrapped up in late October with 96.2 of Michigan’s teams never having to miss a game due to a positive COVID-19 test or contact tracing.
Of course, football teams weren’t mandated to test their athletes then, but after a seven-week pause due to a statewide spike in coronavirus cases, Michigan’s football, volleyball and swim teams still competing in the playoffs were entered into a pilot testing program that screened athletes for COVID-19 three times per week.
The result of those rapid antigen tests was a negative rate of 99.8 percent among 30,000 tests, and of the 5,376 athletes, coaches or team personnel who received at least one test, 1 percent, or 57 individuals, tested positive.
“You’re talking three sports, two of which were exclusively indoor,” Uyl said. “I can tell you that in talking to a lot of our football finalists at Ford field over the weekend, many of their practice days, because of the weather, had to move inside, and so certainly the data, I think, from the pilot program is resonating.”
Uyl also referenced the fact that 38 states are currently playing contact sports, including Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, and said that the similar trends between Michigan and its neighboring states indicates high school sports don’t appear to be causing an increase in cases.
“Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin — they have been practicing and competing in winter sports going back all the way to December 1, and you just look at those three states, as well as Michigan, you look at where our COVID data was, say, November 15, you look at what the COVID data is in those states now, a little bit more than two months later, and in all four states, the COVID data, thankfully, is in a much better position than what it was in mid-November,” Uyl said. “So, yeah, in Michigan, we haven’t been doing winter contact sports, and our numbers over that time — daily new cases per 100,000 went from 67 back in mid-November, we’re now at 21 today. The positive test rate back in mid-November, 13.5, to today it’s at 6.1.
“Those are all very encouraging metrics, and you look at those same numbers in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, and their numbers are down as well, so the argument that indoor contact winter sports are somehow increasing the numbers in at least are three bordering states, and you can really take that across the other 35 states that are fully participating in winter sports, the data is not suggesting that there is that spike.
“So, again, we’re seeing more and more people talking about this. I finally believe that we’ve got people realizing now that we have been ready to go since November, that as soon as Health and Human Services says it’s time to move forward and we can begin contact practices and competition for the four sports that are currently kind of in this holding pattern, we are going to be ready to do so.”
Ohio’s winter contact sports season started with girls basketball and hockey on Nov. 20, while Indiana began with wrestling on Nov. 16, and Wisconsin with girls basketball on Nov. 24.
Between then and now, Ohio’s seven-day positivity rate on COVID-19 tests hovered between 13 and 16 percent, while Indiana’s seven-day rate had a high of 15.9 and a low of 9.1 between now and when winter contact sports started. Those numbers for Wisconsin were 13.3 and 5.9, with the latter being the most recent seven-day average positivity rate.
Between Nov. 16 and Jan. 22, Michigan’s seven-day positivity rate reached a high of 14.3 in early December and is currently at a low of 6.1 percent.
There is some concern about the B117 variant of the coronavirus, which experts believe to be more contagious than the strain that has been detected in Michigan for the last 11 months, and Uyl said he understands that could be an obstacle, but going forward, he is hoping the state health department provides concrete information on what the COVID-19 numbers need to be for winter contact sports to start.
“The thing that we’ve only wanted since Day 1 is when we’re not able to play, simply tell us… if the numbers reached a certain level, this is what would pause, and probably more importantly, especially for our winter community right now, is if we’re not able to fully go right now, please just tell us what the numbers have to be in order to return to activity,” Uyl said. Committee hearings in the State House and State Senate on Thursday, along with a “Let Them Play” scheduled for the Capitol on Saturday will put all eyes on Lansing, as the state’s winter sports outlook unfolds.
While Uyl won’t be speaking at the hearings, he’ll certainly be watching those developments intently and continuing to advocated for winter sports based on the data he has gathered since sports began in the pandemic.
“They have committee hearings scheduled in both chambers in the legislature to where I know dozens of coaches and kids and parents and families are going to be able to talk about their experiences and their frustration,” Uyl said. “So, again, it’s just a matter of us continuing to push the information, to push the data, and trying to get data in the hands of those who are making these decisions right now, and that’s what our (representative) council talked about today, and that’s going to continue to be our push every minute that we have available to us each day.”