A special meeting of the Clark County Board of Health on Tuesday morning was far from routine. Around 80 angry parents, area residents and even high school students called in to comment on the recommendations issued by Clark County Public Health last week that led to a pause on high school wrestling activities.
According to Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director, recommendations came throughout the week from Public Health and the state Department of Health following a statewide COVID-19 outbreak among high school wrestlers.
“We certainly have, and continue to, recognize and appreciate the importance of athletics and other extracurricular activities for Clark County youth. We did not make these recommendations lightly. We know how important these activities are for youth,” Melnick said.
Melnick noted the first cases were initially linked to four wrestling tournaments that took place Dec. 4.
“Now cases have been identified at additional wrestling events across the state,” Melnick told the board.
Along with the statewide tournaments was a Dec. 4 tournament at Columbia River High School and a Dec. 8 wrestling meet between Battle Ground and Prairie high schools. However, not all schools with teams attending the wrestling tournaments had students test positive for the virus.
As of Tuesday morning, Melnick said 350 coronavirus cases statewide have been linked to wrestling. In Clark County, 37 cases at seven schools have been identified, with 21 cases involving vaccinated individuals and 16 cases in unvaccinated individuals. An additional 10 cases have been tentatively identified locally.
Melnick said one Clark County case has been confirmed as the omicron variant but cautioned because the state only tests for the variant in a limited sample, that number is likely higher. He said the state estimates 50 percent of all cases submitted will be positive for the variant.
Three of the COVID-19 cases identified statewide have resulted in hospitalizations, although none are from Clark County.
“I want to make it really clear that we issued recommendations. Schools have the authority to make these decisions on their own. The only thing they can’t do, just as we can’t do, is make decisions that are less restrictive than what the state requires,” Melnick said.
While public health departments say they are recommendations, one caller noted schools have little choice but to follow them or risk losing their insurance or face other consequences.
“The idea was to interrupt the virus transmission occurring within the teams and prevent the outbreaks from spreading into the schools and the community,” Melnick said.
“I’m hearing it’s not just the high schools now but we’re seeing middle schools, and grade schools are seeing an uptick in cases. … What is the likelihood or possibility that those could be connected to this, given we have siblings and parents connecting us in our community?” County Councilor Julie Olson asked.
Melnick said the county does have cases confirmed among middle school wrestlers already.
Many callers said the suspension unfairly targeted wrestling, noting other close-contact sports such as basketball and football have been allowed to continue without the restrictions.
“I think this is very unfair to the wrestlers. This is affecting every other sport as well, but it is only being brought down on the wrestlers,” said parent Kim Dalgord. “Wrestling is getting singled out.”
Dalgord also said schools and Public Health are passing the buck when it comes to taking responsibility for the suspension.
“Everybody just wants to blame everybody else,” Dalgord added.
Several callers said the benefits of sports activities outweigh the risk of getting infected with the coronavirus.
“There is nothing about wrestling that doesn’t promote the mental and physical health of our students. Students have suffered tremendously with the coronavirus restrictions we’ve had,” said wrestling mom Dina Connolly.
Dr. Jaime Nicacio, who practices sports medicine in Vancouver, recommended limiting the number of spectators, requiring spectators to be tested, and testing for coaches and athletes within 24 hours prior to a match as keys to allow wrestling to continue.
“Wrestlers know where there is a will there is a way,” Nicacio said.
While most callers condemned the decision by school districts to suspend wrestling, others repeated the claims common to anti-vaccination and anti-mask groups. One caller claimed vaccine manufacturers were loading the vaccine with HIV and mad cow disease to cull the population.
However, a few callers commended Public Health’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and said restrictions, such as the wrestling suspension, are sometimes necessary to protect the wider community.
Not everyone got the chance to voice their opinions. An hour and a half into the meeting, and with dozens of callers still to go, the board called a halt to the public testimony. Instead, county council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien said the callers should submit their comments in writing and offered assurances those comments would be read.
Despite understanding parents’ concerns and empathizing with students, the board said there was little it could do as it cannot override decisions made by school districts.
“All these comments are relevant and good to air … as well as Dr. Melnick hearing the heartfelt comments of parents and even some of the wrestlers,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said. “I think it will help shape the advice you give to the school districts.”
The board asked that an update on the suspension and virus outbreak numbers be presented at its next meeting Jan. 4 or during council time Jan. 5.