North Carolina sounds alarm that nearly half of state's middle and high school Covid-19 clusters tied to sports

North Carolina sounds the alarm that nearly half of the state's middle and high school Covid-19 clusters are tied to sports.

By Mallory Simon, CNN

(CNN) -- Forty-five percent of all Covid-19 clusters in North Carolina's middle and high schools since July have been among sports teams, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

The state's department of health said it was seeing a "sharp increase" in clusters among sports teams.

"Clusters among school sports teams accounted for 45% of all clusters in North Carolina middle and high schools, despite most school sports activities not beginning until August as schools began the fall semester," North Carolina's health department said in a news release.

The health department reported 42 athletics-related clusters and defines a cluster as a minimum of 5 cases.

Between July 1 and September 2, there were 340 cases in those 42 athletics-related clusters in North Carolina public, charter and private middle and high schools, according to the NCDHHS.

"To protect students' privacy, no other identifying information, including county or school, will be released," it said.

The NCDHHS said the numbers underscored an urgent need for vaccination among school children as soon as possible. Children 17 and under were 31% of the state's new Covid-19 cases, the highest since the pandemic began, the health department said.

"We need everyone, including our student athletes and their coaches, to increase layers of prevention to fight this more contagious Delta variant: Don't wait to vaccinate and urge others to do the same," NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer and State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson. "Tested, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Student athletes who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after a close contact with someone with COVID-19."

North Carolina's health department recommends face masks be worn in indoor settings, as well as recommending sports programs "practice social distancing when possible, disinfect equipment frequently and avoid sharing water bottles."

"Teams should also consider working out, including weight training, in groups or pods to limit exposure should someone become sick," according to the NCDHHS. "Sports in which participants have frequent and prolonged contact, such as basketball, football, cheerleading, wrestling and others, are higher risk."

Both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have advised that sports can play a role in the spread of Covid-19 among students, especially those who are unvaccinated.

The CDC recommends children limit youth sport participation and follow specific guidelines when engaging in those types of activities. The agency listed nearly a dozen different recommendations, including minimizing the time spent indoors and reducing the amount of time players spend in close contact with each other.

Last month, a number of sports and medical associations said they believe all athletes who can get can be vaccinated against Covid-19 should, as soon as possible, and urged medical providers to talk about the vaccine at all sports physicals. In addition to the AAP, other organizations included in the statement include the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, among others.

"We, the undersigned organizations, believe all athletes who do not have contraindications should be vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they are eligible," said a news release from the AAP.

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