High school students need the exercise, socialization and character building that comes along with fall sports, but close contact interscholastic sports competition is not what Maine needs right now as it deals with the reopening of businesses, universities and K-12 schools and the coming of cold weather and flu season.

That is according to Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who served 15 years as the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and is now a vice president of community health for MaineHealth, Northern New England’s largest healthcare provider. She is also the sister of Gov. Janet Mills.

“Think of the pandemic like a fire, and each of these things – increased economic activity, the reopening of colleges, the reopening of K-12 schools, the coming of cold weather season when we all head indoors and flu season – is a fuel being added to that fire,” Mills said Thursday. “If you add too much fuel, too fast, we could get burned.”

Mills was reacting to the Maine Principals’ Association vote Thursday afternoon to allow fall sports to proceed, with modifications. She hadn’t yet read the MPA proposal, which will now be reviewed by Maine’s health, education and economic development agencies as well as Gov. Mills’ office, but spoke generally about how high school sports could be safely played.

Mills emphasized the need for all high schools to find a way for student athletes to get conditioning, team building skills and socialization. It is important for their mental and emotional health as well as their physical health, especially now as they face the stress of growing up in the worst public health crisis in more than a century, she said.

But this fall is not the time for Maine to insist on high school sports as usual, she said. Low-contact sports like golf or swimming could probably hold interscholastic meets with a few restrictions, she said, but cross-state competition for high-contact sports like football or wrestling are probably a bad idea for Maine as a whole, not just the athletes, their families or fans.

For those high-contact sports, intra-team scrimmages or conditioning or community service that bonds players together and helps them stay in shape until the team can compete in the spring or next year might be the best solution, Mills said. Athletes who are infected should be fully recovered and tested for lingering heart conditions before resuming strenuous activity.

Because of their health and age, many high school athletes who become infected may not experience typical COVID-19 symptoms, she said. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become unknowingly infected at an away game, bring that virus home to their family, a secondary contact, who then unknowingly passes it on to an elderly grandparent, a tertiary contact, she said.

That is why some of these decisions about resuming sports should really be community-wide conversations, Mills said.

Mills pointed to one of Maine’s biggest COVID-19 outbreaks, a wedding held three weeks ago at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, that has spread to 87 people across Maine, from a rehabilitation center in Madison to a York County Jail, and claimed the life of a woman who didn’t attend the wedding but had close contact with someone who did.

“If Millinocket has taught us anything, it’s that this novel virus is very serious and can spread extraordinarily quickly throughout a wedding party, a school, a community and even the state,” Mills said. “It’s human nature to at least try to do sports, to say we’ll stop if we get an outbreak, but by then it can be too late. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”


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