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Kenney says he’s been told youth sports could be linked to ‘worrisome signs’ of COVID-19 transmission in Alberta

It’s been nearly two months since Alberta allowed for more opportunities for children and youth to take part in sports-related activities. On Monday night, the premier suggested it’s possible that could be linked to a concerning trend amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen some worrisome signs of growing viral transmission among school-aged children in Alberta, and (chief medical officer of health) Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw believes that is likely linked to the relaxation of extra-curricular activities such as sports,” Premier Jason Kenney said during a livestream on social media. “It clearly was not happening through in-class instruction… but has apparently been accelerated by some of those athletic activities.

“We just need to keep this thing under control for a few more weeks until we’ve got enough vaccines to have a real protective effect on our population.”

Kenney added that while the pandemic has taught him to “never say never,” the government does not currently have any plans to hit pause on in-school learning.

In early February, the province announced youths 18 and under would be able to take part in “limited group physical activities” such as practices or physical conditioning activities for indoor and outdoor minor sports.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Kids back at practice as in-person dining and gyms open in Alberta on Monday 

While playing actual games is not allowed, up to 10 people can take part in such activities at a single site as long as a number of precautions are followed, including that physical distance is maintained between participants (three metres when inside and two metres when outside) and that everyone is masked when they are not taking part in the training activity.

Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, told Global News that while many people — especially young Albertans — were vigilant about following public health measures at the beginning of the pandemic, he believes some people have had difficulty maintaining focus on that as of late.

“I think we are seeing more activity, especially with a lot of sanctioned activities — a lot of indoor activities are now opened up — and so people are getting infected,” he said.

READ MORE: Alberta opens rest of Step 2 relaunch as 278 new COVID-19 cases confirmed 

In a statement issued to Global News on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Alberta Health said that as of Monday, 22 per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province were in school-aged children and youth.

“We are seeing a concerning rise in cases in all age groups, including school-aged Albertans,” Tom McMillan said in an email. “At this time, activities outside of school, including sports and socializing, are playing a key role in spreading the virus among young people.

“We do not have a specific breakdown of transmission linked to sports specifically. However, we have seen reports of cases linked to all areas and elements of young peoples’ lives.”

Wing Li, a spokesperson for Support our Students Alberta, a non-profit public education advocacy group, said her organization has “been seeing that from the ground — reports that school sports (are) leading to possible transmission.”

Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, said where sports are being played is a logical place to believe youth and children could be spreading COVID-19.

“I wouldn’t say it’s exclusively due to that but I’m sure that is contributing to the rising cases in those age groups,” she said. “I think in the past, people were maybe a little bit less aware of the possibility of transmission among children, just given how rare it was.

“I think people need to be a little bit more attuned to the fact children can transmit COVID(-19).”

McMillan noted that if proper precautions are not followed, “youth sporting activities have a high risk of spread due to exertion of participants, and potential mixing and mingling.”

“As community transmission and positivity rates increase, there is also an increased risk of introducing the virus into these settings,” he said.

READ MORE: 576 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Alberta Tuesday, including 332 variant cases 

On Tuesday, Alberta Health said the province’s positivity rate was at 7.7 per cent and that 576 new COVID-19 cases had been identified over the past 24 hours. Nearly 58 per cent of those new cases were identified as involving variants of concern.

“It is vital that children, youth, and parents all follow the rules currently in place for sporting activities,” McMillan said.

“This long weekend, it is important that we all continue following the rules and limiting in-person interactions whenever possible.”

READ MORE: Calgary minor sports organizations struggle to adapt to province’s new COVID-19 rules 

The president of the Edmonton Minor Soccer Association said he is still hopeful children in Alberta’s capital will be able to take part in games in some capacity this season.

“We don’t what the restrictions are going to be, we don’t know what the protocol is going to be — we don’t know nothing,” Mario Charpentier said.

“We’re just registering kids and hopefully we’ll have some kind of outdoor season.”

–With files from Global News’ Fletcher Kent

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