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Health officials pin Covid outbreaks on high school wrestling tourneys

caption: A La Center High School wrestler competes in a tournament in Estacada, Oregon, on Dec. 4.
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A La Center High School wrestler competes in a tournament in Estacada, Oregon, on Dec. 4.
La Center High School

High school wrestling tournaments have led to multiple Covid outbreaks in western Washington, according to state officials, including at least 115 cases in King and Snohomish counties alone.

Tournaments on Dec. 4 in Lacey, Puyallup, Sumner, and Yelm all spawned coronavirus outbreaks, according to state epidemiologist Scott Lindquist.

“As you can imagine, the ability to transmit an airborne infection in a wrestling match is just higher than most events,” Lindquist said.

Add in crowded bleachers full of spectators, many of them refusing to wear masks despite the state requirement to do so indoors, and you get “a perfect situation for transmission and outbreaks,” he said.

Lindquist watched videos from the events on social media.

“There were a ton of people in indoor spaces, crowded into bleachers, not wearing masks. So I can say very clearly, no, guidance was not being followed.”

Teams from 13 Washington counties and one from Oregon wrestled in the four tourneys:

  • John Birbeck Invitational in Lacey
  • Ed Arima Duals in Sumner
  • Lady Jags Kickoff Tournament in Puyallup
  • Yelm Girls Varsity in Yelm

Health officials urge anyone who attended those events to get tested.

The Snohomish County Health District has identified 33 cases in nine school districts connected to the four tournaments. The public health agency has required schools to put all wrestling activities on hold until all wrestlers, coaches, and volunteers are tested for Covid-19.

Outbreaks stemming from other wrestling competitions are already being identified.

Health officials in King County said they have linked at least seven wrestling tournaments to 82 coronavirus cases in the county.

“We are only aware of one case that was hospitalized, but that was just an overnight hospitalization," said King County Public Health Officer Jeff Duchin. “So all of these people seem to be doing very well, which is great news.”

About 80% of the people infected in the King County cases had been vaccinated, according to Duchin.

He said 20 schools in King County have had at least one wrestling-related case, while nine of those schools have had outbreaks involving at least three cases.

While Duchin declined to name the schools or districts, Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said 10 wrestlers and two staff in the district had tested positive.

At least three of the cases identified in King County were caused by the highly contagious omicron variant.

“It doesn't matter what the variant is with a mask. If you're properly wearing a mask, it adds some protection against any variant,” Lindquist said.

“It's kind of getting to be an old story,” he said, the frustration apparent in his voice.

“I really feel for people because I know they're tired of hearing this. I’m tired of it,” he said.

As the Washington Department of Health decides how to respond to this outbreak, some schools have already begun calling off upcoming sporting events.

The North Thurston Rams, who finished second out of 16 teams at the Birbeck tournament, postponed Wednesday night’s basketball games against the Central Kitsap Cougars.

The Kitsap Sun reports Central Kitsap and North Kitsap high schools canceling wrestling matches this week.

“Our athletic departments, including wrestling, struggle to balance state mandates which on the one hand encourage our students to stay engaged and participate in extracurricular activities while following current health guidelines during a pandemic,” a press release from North Thurston Public Schools stated.

Lindquist said higher numbers of cases, schools, and wrestling events connected to these outbreaks would emerge in the next day or two.

“This is a very active investigation,” he said.

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