Protecting Jamaican athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic


Protecting Jamaican athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic

Prof Rachael Irving

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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ON March 5, 2020 the Faculty of Medical Sciences held it first conference signaling The University of the West Indies' and Ministry of Health and Wellness's preparedness for COVID-19.

Some researchers in the faculty were following the evolution of athletics and COVID-19. Many were convinced post-February 2020 that a packed National Stadium with international spectators and participants would exponentially spread SARS-CoV-2 in Jamaica. Noticeable was the Atalanta 4-1 win over Valencia, with sporting fans of 40,000 being a catalyst for Lombardy becoming one of the worst virus-infected regions of the world. The virus spread so much in San Siro stadium on match night of February 19 that within two weeks 35 per cent of the travelling squad tested positive for COVID-19.

The Italian Government began closing the country to slow the rising death rate due to COVID-19. On March 6, 2020 World Health Organization consultant and Faculty of Medical Sciences virologist, Dr Sandra Jackson and I met at National Stadium with Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) executives who were directly in charge of the annual Boys' and Girls' Athletics Championships.

At the meeting, ventilation and air circulation issues, sanitation stations set-up, bathroom preparation, medical/anti-doping isolation areas, exit/entry gates, personal protective clothing for medical and key security personnel, and calculated relative virus infection rates (RO) of spectators coming to Champs from North America, Europe, and the Caribbean were discussed. The RO then stood at between 0.09 to 1.89.

By March 10, 2020 Jamaica had its first imported case of COVID-19 from the UK. On March 11, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert of the National Basketball Association tested positive for COVID-19. Before diagnosis, he had been to stadiums and media events with upwards of 100,000 spectators.

On that day the fully informed executives of ISSA met with the Ministry of Health and sponsors and Champs was cancelled. The New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the RO or R naught rate of COVID-19 has since increased to 2-2.5, making it more infectious than Ebola.

This means that each infected person is likely to infect two other persons. Italy and the UK have death rates of 14.5 per cent and 14.2 per cent, respectively. America and Canada hover between 6-8 per cent. The good thing about Jamaica, and the Caribbean and African response, is that our death rate from COVID-19 has remained relatively low, averaging between 0.1 - 7 per cent with most countries – apart from Sudan, Liberia, and Algeria being less than three per cent. Jamaica, therefore, saved itself from an explosive infection rate (RO) when Champs was cancelled. The big question now is can we now move forward into competition?

If Germany, Spain and UK, with higher death rates than us, started preparing for competition then it means that Jamaican athletes and coaches have to prepare themselves to compete and survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of antibody testing to determine immunity, and wholescale polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to determine the presence of the virus (antigen), Jamaican sport managers, scientists and physicians with the Ministry of Health and Wellness must devise a method to prepare athletes to earn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many persons indirectly depend on athletics for survival. Some young researchers at the University Hospital of the West Indies have found elevation of particular biochemical parameters in those who had COVID-19, whether they died or survived. A simple blood test based on demographics can be done on all Jamaican athletes to indicate whether particular biochemical parameters such as lactate dehydrogenase, ferritin and troponin-I are similarly abnormally elevated. The relative expensive PCR test could then be done on those athletes with elevated parameters.

The PCR is the test done to confirm whether one has COVID-19. Those athletes who are negative for COVID-19 should have an antibody test done to determine if they have developed some immunity (IgG antibodies) from the disease. Immunity means one is protected from getting infected by the virus, thus these athletes could travel overseas to participate in competitions. Jamaica should start a COVID-19 sport participation passport for elite athletes. This COVID-19 passport can be compared to the WADA Biological Passport.

There are going to be major deviations in blood parameters for athletes who were asymptomatic and recovered from COVID-19 but did not know they had the virus. These athletes need to be aware of their status. Sport managers need to start the conversation about protecting Jamaican athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Note: Rachael Irving is a professor of biochemistry and sport science at the Faculty of Medical Sciences UWI, Mona.

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