Nearly two dozen COVID-19 outbreaks were declared for Saskatchewan curling clubs and hockey teams or leagues in less than four weeks — including 10 outbreaks after the sports suspension was in effect.
Five curling clubs and at least 17 hockey teams or leagues have had COVID-19 outbreaks since Nov. 13, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s (SHA’s) outbreak list.
“Don’t play hockey, is the simple answer,” said Ryan Demmer, University of Minnesota associate professor of epidemiology and community health, when asked how to avoid spread in those environments.
“The fact of the matter is this virus spreads by people breathing on each other.”
The Saskatchewan government announced on Nov. 25 that sports would be suspended starting that Friday.
As of 12:01 a.m. CST on Nov. 27, all team sports and group activities were suspended. But athletes and dancers 18 years old or younger can keep practising in groups up to eight, assuming masks are worn and at least three metres of distance is maintained at all times.
The suspension is in effect until at least Dec. 18, yet a combined 10 hockey teams or leagues and curling clubs have had COVID-19 outbreaks since the team sports suspension was in effect. The most recent was declared on Dec. 5 for the Adult Safe Hockey League in Saskatoon.
CBC News contacted the league manager and Saskatchewan Ministry of Health for comment, but neither immediately responded.
Some outbreaks, such as those declared on Nov. 22 for the Fort Knox hockey team of the Prairie Junior Hockey League and Balcarres Broncos senior hockey team, were linked to events outside the hockey environment.
But the typical indoor hockey rink creates an environment that allows air to fester and germs to spread, said Demmer.
Cold air drops toward the ice, but the boards trap the air on the ice surface. Players are then moving quickly, breathing heavily and within close proximity of each other in air that isn’t being circulated, he said.
Close contacts are defined as people who have been less than two metres from a positive case for more than 15 minutes.
Hockey players and curlers are going to be on the ice for at least an hour, then could be congregating somewhere else such as a locker room afterward, said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, University of Saskatchewan professor of community health and epidemiology.
“If you are a curler and not wearing a mask, you will be exposing yourself and others to the virus,” said Muhajarine. “If you are a hockey player, you will be wearing a mouth guard, there will be a face shield… and that could cut down the amount of virus that’s being exasperated out.
“But hockey players don’t necessarily keep their mouths shut when they’re careening down the length of the ice… and if they happen to be positive, they will be expelling this virus.”
Muhajarine suggests people consider how much of the virus is spreading in their respective community before participating in sports like hockey or curling. Instead, they could do something outdoors, he said.
Both Muhajarine and Demmer noted that COVID-19 vaccines are starting to roll out, so if people can hang on for just a few more months as immunity builds, then sports can get back to normal.