Coronavirus sickens 8 on Oregon high school baseball team
A club baseball team composed mostly of current and incoming Newberg High School students reached a turning point in its season last week, and it had nothing to do with its play on the diamond. Eight individuals associated with the Newberg summer baseball team, including head coach Trey Watt, tested positive for COVID-19 and are self-isolating after one player went to the hospital with a high fever on July 3.
The outbreak was announced by Newberg School Superintendent Joe Morelock on July 6, with the names of the players infected kept private per district policy and "applicable privacy laws." While the team is technically affiliated with Babe Ruth leagues this summer because of the American Legion's decision not to schedule games during the pandemic, Morelock's news release referred to the team as a "Legion" team because of its past affiliation and emphasized that they aren't school-sanctioned.
The season has since been "put on pause" by Watt and is unlikely to resume.
"The Legion team was in Roseburg for a weekend tournament, when they were informed that another team at the tournament had reported two cases of COVID-19 among their players," Morelock wrote. "Although Newberg had no contact with that team, the decision was made to leave the tournament early and return to Newberg. We received further information late on Friday evening that one of the Newberg Legion players was taken to the hospital with a high temperature. He was tested for COVID-19 and it was confirmed as a positive case for the disease."
Watt said contact tracers gave him the impression that the team's outbreak started before the Roseburg tournament. More than 50 players and coaches were tested in the aftermath of the fever-stricken player going to the hospital on July 3. Seven other individuals including Watt tested positive for the virus as of July 6 and were all determined to be asymptomatic.
These individuals were in the same subgroup of players who worked out together in close proximity at Newberg's practices, Watt said. The virus didn't spread outside of this group so far, he said, and Watt is considering the possibility that he might have been the one to give the virus to his players as an asymptomatic spreader.
"Our families and our kids were responsible and followed the guidelines to the best of their abilities," Watt said. "This is one of those things that you could do everything right and follow all the guidelines and still end up in this kind of situation. We're learning how we can do things better, and I'm sorry that our kids and families have to go through this.
"We can't point to one thing and say that's where the outbreak started. It could be a guy going to a grocery store, going out to eat or going to a friend's house. It could be me going to the grocery store and then giving it to my players later that day because I'm asymptomatic and spreading it. We don't know."
NHS athletic director Tim Burke said he is confident the team followed extensive safety protocols at practices and workouts. This incident, however, raises questions about the safety of high school sports during the pandemic when reliable treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 are not yet available, and when young people are so often asymptomatic spreaders of a disease that has a disproportionate impact on elderly and immuno-compromised people.
"Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our student-athletes," Burke said. "The school's response will be to continue to support those families affected and to remind all of our programs to continue to follow protocols established by the (Oregon Health Authority). These protocols are impactful ways to keep kids safe, and we will continue to strictly adhere to them."
Moving forward with uncertainty
OSAA-sanctioned sports have been canceled since the outbreak began in March. Some high school football teams, including Newberg, already had begun summer workouts prior to the baseball team's positive tests. Football workouts have since been paused, officials say. Sports teams around the state that already are practicing and playing games in limited forms follow the guidance of their individual counties' health departments.
Newberg baseball is done playing for the foreseeable future. Watt said he wanted to protect the health and safety of his players and their families while getting out of the way of fall sports teams who are trying to start up summer workouts safely.
"We stopped at all levels all the way down to T-ball," he said. "We want to get more clarity on what we can do better next time around. Even though we followed the guidelines with no spectators, masks, social distancing and sanitizing, we still had a bunch of guys get it. Now we need to sit back and look at what we can do better whenever we get back to it, and what other sports can do better.
"I think it's possible to play high school sports if we do things similarly to what professional sports are doing with a 'bubble.' If you can create that point A to point B mindset for the kids and instill in the kids the idea that they have to be extra careful because they play sports, I think you can do it. It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of the athletes and coaches to limit exposure outside of your bubble."
Whether a "bubble" approach is possible for high school sports teams around the state remains to be seen. Much remains unknown about the future of the virus in Oregon and around the country, how severe the spread might be, how it might mutate and how it might impact people's health in the long-term. The speed of potential treatments and vaccines being developed is a big question mark as well, as is the willingness of people to follow basic public health guidelines proven to slow the spread like wearing a mask in public and social distancing.
Newberg's club baseball team tried to adhere to those guidelines and put in place significant precautionary measures. But the variability of where kids and coaches went when they weren't on the field, who they spent their time with and how seriously the community takes the pandemic are things the team can't control.
With the season shut down, Watt is left with nothing to do but support his players and their families remotely as best he can. Because of his positive test and despite feeling no symptoms so far, he is self-isolating from his family in a camper on the side of his house. His wife brings him food and sets it on the deck for him, sending a text once she's delivered it. He has to look at his kids through a window and can't get close to them for another two weeks until he tests negative for COVID-19 multiple times.
"Regardless of what you think of the virus, it affects lives," Watt said. "Whether you think it's a life-taker or an average cold, you have to respect its power of impacting your friends, family and neighbors. If you're not willing to respect its power, it will find its way to you and force you to respect it. People need to swallow their pride and try to do everything they can to protect each other, because sometimes even that isn't enough."
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