HELENA — As Montana’s coronavirus cases continue to climb, the future of school and athletics, particularly fall contact sports, remains a topic of conversation. In fact, Governor Steve Bullock referenced an athletic-related cluster in Wednesday’s COVID-19 update, confirming the novel virus is already having an effect.
“For example, a cluster involving a collegiate sports team and their friends in Montana included 20 cases and 80 contacts in one county alone," Bullock said Wednesday. "The cluster was then later connected to additional cases in three other counties, by way of a wedding and other social events that people attended while infectious. The majority of cases were in younger individuals.”
MTN Sports has already reported on positive cases involving athletes, with rumors of many more, but the governor’s comment did leave room for some questions: Did the cluster involving the college athletes stem from an actual sporting event, like a practice or contest?
Were the positive cases asymptomatic, and did they lead to any hospitalizations?
Most importantly, as the Big Sky Conference, Frontier Conference and Montana High School Association discuss ways to safely conduct athletic events this fall, particularly contact sports like football, is there growing concern within the governor’s office and the Department of Public Health and Human Services that athletics could contribute to the continued spread of the novel virus?
The governor’s office, in working with the DPHHS, answered those questions in an email to MTN Sports.
“This cluster is not as simple as one specific event, but a combination of several events (including possibly practice) or other gatherings where transmissions occurred. This cluster involved both student-athletes and non-student-athletes,” Erin Loranger, Bullock’s press secretary, wrote in regards to the origin of the cluster.
Loranger went on to state all of the 20 cases were positive COVID-19 cases, not antibody tests, and that the preliminary info showed that two people were asymptomatic. The rest displayed symptoms, but no hospitalizations resulted from the cluster.
As officials on the college and high school athletic fronts work diligently to create protocols and guidelines to safely conduct athletics, which could begin in a matter of days, clusters and spreads such as the one Gov. Bullock mentioned Wednesday certainly raise an eyebrow.
“We are always concerned about the further spread of COVID-19, especially when social distance isn’t possible. Any cluster of cases is very concerning because we know how quickly COVID-19 can spread,” Loranger wrote.
“We do know that Montana colleges and high schools are doing everything possible to implement safety precautions for student-athletes in the coming school year," Loranger added. "Montana colleges and high schools are working directly with their local county health departments and others on how to best proceed. The State of Montana is here to help, as well.”
The Big Sky Conference remains committed to its hard deadline of Aug. 1 to make a final decision regarding its athletics.
The Frontier Conference has a regularly scheduled meeting with its council of presidents on Monday, but commissioner Kent Paulson noted the NAIA will conduct a call Tuesday with its council of presidents, which includes a representative from each league (Rocky Mountain College president Bob Wilmouth will represent the Frontier Conference). The Frontier will circle up later in the week to discuss any decisions the NAIA announces, according to Paulson.
Meanwhile, the Montana High School Association will release its return to fall activities guidelines on Monday, which is expected to go in-depth to the protocols required in conducting each individual sport.