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OHA's new guidance lessens mask-wearing requirements for high school athletes.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Lakeridge boys track team - like all others across the state - has been required to wear masks during competition in 2021.I've got to hand it to the current crop of Oregon high school athletes.

They're strong. They're resilient. They're fighters, and they're making the most of the limited opportunities they've been given in 2021.

Miles VanceThey've had to deal with COVID-19 cancellations, shortened seasons, the loss of state championships and more, and they've had to do it all while wearing face masks.

On that subject — face masks — the state of Oregon issued new guidance this week following the spectacular fall of a Summit High School track runner. For those who haven't heard about it or seen it, Summit junior Maggie Williams passed out just as she reached the finish line of the 800 meters in her team's meet against Sisters, Gilchrist and Paisley on Wednesday, April 21, at Summit High School.

Williams, who broke the school record with a time of 2 minutes, 8.45 seconds, almost broke a lot more, falling face first to the track at the finish line of her race. Her coach, Dave Turnbull, attributed Williams' collapse to "complete oxygen debt" caused by competing while wearing a face mask.

In response to entreaties by Turnbull and others, the Oregon Health Authority issued new guidance — which still falls short of recommendations by the World Health Organization — regarding high school sports and masks on Tuesday, April 27:

"We are revising the current guidance on the use of masks outdoors during competition. The guidance will allow people to take off face coverings when competing in non-contact sports outdoors and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others and the other virus protective protocols."

While the change is certainly a step in the right direction, it is hardly a win for Oregon's high school athletes. Instead, it's another weak, half measure that will neither protect athletes nor relieve the unnecessary burden that face masks put on athletes. In short, it falls right in line with almost everything else the state has done to our high school athletes.

After Oregon canceled the end of the 2020 high school winter sports season, canceled the 2020 spring season in its entirety, turned the summer of 2020 on its head, delayed the 2020 fall season, delayed it again, moved all sports into 2021, shortened each season to just six weeks and canceled state championships, it's just another slight to Oregon's high school athletes.

If masks were necessary for all athletes' safety up until the moment Williams fell to the track — it looks like she'll be OK, by the way — why did they become unnecessary (or less necessary) immediately thereafter?

Regarding the virus itself, COVID-19 is certainly dangerous, but it's most dangerous to older Oregonians and those with other underlying medical conditions. For Oregon's younger residents, however, it is decidedly less dangerous.

According to the Oregon Health Authority website, the death rate for the 10-19 age group is 0% (there's been one COVID-19 death in that age group after 15 months of the pandemic). The death rate for the 0-9 age group is also 0% (there's also been one COVID death in that age group). The death rate for the 20-29 age group is also 0% (there have been five COVID deaths there).

The OHA website shows that the 30-39 and 40-49 age groups also have 0% death rates. Indeed, it's not until you reach the 50-59 age group that there have been enough COVID-19 deaths (153) to register as a percentage; there, the death rate is 1%.

In the 10-19 age group — the one that encapsulates all our high school athletes — there have been 20,923 COVID-19 cases among almost a half-million young people in the state.

Of those almost 21,000 cases, the OHA can only confirm that 1% have resulted in hospitalizations (the Oregon Health Authority website reports that the hospitalization status for 28% of the cases in the 10-19 age group is unknown).

Let's parse it out a bit further. With about half a million Oregonians (496,797) in the 10-19 age group, less than half of those — {obj:53749:181,323 — attend high school}.

Of that 181,323, the best estimates are that approximately 100,000 of those play high school sports, though it seems likely that number counts multisport athletes once for each sport they play, rather than just once for each athlete.

However, at most, only 20% of the 10-19 age group plays high school sports. That means that among Oregon's high school athletes, there have almost certainly been no more (and probably far fewer) than 4,184 COVID-19 cases and just over 200 confirmed hospitalizations.

In reality, those numbers — no deaths, 4,184 cases and 210 hospitalizations — are likely far lower when you consider that high school athletes are among the most healthy and fit members of their age group and therefore least likely to suffer severe consequences from a COVID infection.

Nationwide, Oregon is the only state that requires its high school athletes to wear face masks while competing. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of all states held fall high school sports on time (with some delays and many changes caused by occasional COVID-19 outbreaks). Nationwide, almost every state in the country began winter season sports on time.

For those minute COVID totals, for an overabundance of caution, for a lack of leadership and courage, the state of Oregon has wiped out seasons, crushed dreams and continues to do so.

Here in Oregon — where the state has consistently ranked among the very best (and always among the top third) in the country for lowest infection and death rates — we continue to shortchange our high school athletes.

Mask or no mask, it still stinks.

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