Athletes work around contact tracing conundrum to stay in the game

Ann Vettikkal | Managing Editor

When it comes to avoiding COVID quarantines, athletes are beginning to strategize off the field in order to keep on playing on it.

A month into school and a semblance of routine has formed – students wear masks before stepping into the building, teachers sanitize around the clock, and receiving notification that you have been traced as someone that has been near a positive case is not unlikely.

The specific numbers as to how many and how often students are testing positive and getting quarantined are provided by Mason City Schools, whose weekly updates of new cases and quarantines offer relative transparency. In the first three weeks of September, there have been an average of ~8 new cases and ~111 new quarantines per week (including both staff and students across all schools.)

These newsletters reveal the rate of the virus’ spread as well as Mason City Schools’ ability to reduce or slow this rate. Guidelines put in place to lead this effort have largely been dictated by the Warren County Department of Health, meaning that if a student tests positive for the virus, administration will contact the Department for next steps. Assistant Principal Brandon Rompies detailed this procedure and discussed the specifics of contact tracing.

“We are given [the number of] days that a student could have been exposed here,” Rompies said. “It varies — generally, it’s 48 hours from the symptoms or the [positive] test. So if a student is feeling symptoms on a Sunday, for example, we have to contact trace [for] Friday. We look at the students’ bell schedule, go to their classrooms, and we work with the teacher to identify who would have been within six feet for longer than 15 minutes.”

After getting contact traced, a student is placed into quarantine for 14 days, which starts since their last exposure with the positive case. For those who actually have the virus, the number varies, and could actually be shorter.

“The virus is a 14 day incubation period,” said Rompies. “But the thinking is — guided by the Department of Health — if you’re showing symptoms, you might already be a couple of days into the virus.”

For some students, the worry is not truly about getting COVID, but getting contact traced in the way Rompies described. Senior Nolan McCormick, a running back for the varsity football team, discussed worries that he and his teammates have about potentially missing two weeks of their season.

“Many of my teammates are planning on switching to remote learning for the rest of the first semester,” said McCormick. “I think the biggest reason we’re doing that is just so we have the opportunity to continue to play the rest of our season. First of all — just not get COVID. And second of all, just so we take away the chance of us getting contact traced from being in school and sitting next to somebody who tests positive.”

Although the amount of new cases is not increasing drastically, there has been an exponential increase in the number of quarantines, nearly quadrupling since the start of September. This is not necessarily bad — it simply means that precaution and protocol are ensuring that a student who could unknowingly be infected and actively spreading the virus is quarantined during their purported incubation period.

This also means that McCormick’s worries are not coming out of left field. He claimed that teammates getting contact traced and removed from school has already happened despite them “just sitting in class, mask up, sanitizing, doing everything right.” Because even after following protocol (with which “students are doing a great job,” according to Rompies) it is physically impossible to truly maintain 6 feet of distance in a three-floor, five-wing high school, which houses thousands of students for 7 hours a day.

And he’s not alone. Senior Catherine Zhang, a key player for the Girls Varsity Golf Team, also plans to switch to online with a fellow senior teammate. With an important — and final — high school season, Zhang said she wanted to focus on golf and ensure she could be there for her team.

“We feel uncomfortable going to school knowing that we could be quarantined at any time and then we won’t be able to play golf,” Zhang said. “If someone were to get quarantined, we have 10 really strong players that can step up. But for a lot of us, it’s our last season and it’s something that we’ve been working towards the past six years.”

McCormick voiced a similar sentiment, stating that during this time, his team is prepared for a sudden loss of a player who has to be quarantined.

“Having a guy stay out — it’s never good for us” said. McCormick. “But as a team, we have that mentality of next guy up. And that’s why in practice, everybody’s always getting ready. You always have to be paying attention to what is going on because you never know when a guy could ‘go down.’”

These two players are at the final frontier of their high school careers. A senior season is commonly regarded as a time of celebration that reflects on years of training and hard work while athletes attempt to put one last notch in their belt and experience a cinematic finish to their season. The spirit and uproar of the Black Hole or the poignant tradition of Senior Night may not feel or look the same but the passion for the sport itself has been key to staying focused and disciplined.

Zhang called this her “big year” when multiple star players give them an opportunity to be frontrunners on the leaderboard and “stay on top.” And for McCormick, unsure of what the future holds, savoring what is left of his time as a football player at Mason is critical.

“I am a senior so especially for me, I really don’t want to miss two weeks because of getting contact traced,” McCormick said. “We already have a shortened season as it is. This could be my last couple games playing football– who knows if I’ll play at the next level? I just want to do everything I can to play as many games as possible right now and throughout my entire senior season.”