Seven deaths in 26 days; The push for better health and safety practices for high school athletes

West Virginia Headlines

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WTRF) – There are a lot of dangers for student athletes far beyond COVID-19.

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There is also an effort across the nation to make sure health and safety are of more concern than winning games and championships at the 22,000 high schools across the country.

Since 2016, there’s been a group of researchers looking at what exactly high schools required to put in place for health and safety standards, but it’s more than just finding the problem. They are also trying to stop catastrophic injuries in student athletes.

We have had seven deaths in 26 days around the nation. That is a number that has been unheard of over the past few years.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

Deaths that could of been prevented and a total that could be more because those are only the deaths reported in the media.

As the problem gets worse, a project called the Team Up for Sports Safety (TUFSS) initiative is trying to make it better. 

West Virginia University researcher Samantha Scarneo-Miller and her team members at the University of Connecticut Korey Stringer Institute developed what they feel is an objective evaluation to rank states based on the top four causes of sudden death in sports; heart, head, heat and hemoglobin. 

What those stand for are cardiac arrest, exertional heat stroke, traumatic brain injuries and this is not your concussions. We’re talking skull fractures, brain bleeds, that type of stuff. Something called sickle cell trait, which you can be born and have sickle cell trait and not the full blown disease, which means that when you exert yourself too much your blood cells can then sickle.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

In the years since, they’re meeting with each state, in a project funded by the NFL, National Athletic Trainers Association and several private donors. In those meetings the team discusses what’s being done well, where new policies need put in place and how the TUFFS team can help.

The goal is to visit all 50 states and Washington D.C.

So, how did West Virginia do?

In West Virginia we are at the bottom of the list of having access to athletic trainers in high schools. By having an athletic trainer on the sidelines you are ensuring that your patients, your athletes are being taken care of in accordance of these best standards regardless of if your state requires it or not.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

Scarneo-Miller said the Mountain State also needs to do better with heat policies. 

She explained that the current state policy uses heat index readings for the rules to modify practices, but that’s not considered best practice. Heat index isn’t an accurate reading because of how diverse areas are.

Here’s how Scarneo-Miller said it works. The heat index reading is taken at the local weather station, but because areas are so large and diverse, different schools in different areas could have a much different heat reading. So, there’s another temperature they recommend.

We look for something called WetBulb Globe Temperature, WBGT and WBGT takes into account heat, humidity, wind speed, sun or shade and it’s taken on the specific field or venue that you’re going to be at.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

It’s not all bad news. 

West Virginia does score well with emergency action plans, which are required as of this year in the state’s high schools. 

Some recent research is actually saying that by having an emergency action plan you are 35% more likely to save somebody’s life.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

After what Scarneo-Miller called one of the deadliest summers we’ve ever had, change is crucial. 

We need to do better. We have to do better. It’s inexcusable and I feel for those parents every single day.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

She also had advice for parents who want to be proactive about the situation and not wait for their school or state to enact new policies. Scarneo-Miller encourages parents to ask the school to see the emergency action plan. Also ask if the school has an athletic trainer.

If they say no, ask why? Ask why the investment has not been made to safe your child’s life.

Samantha Scarneo-Miller, Assistant Professor, MSAT Program Director, West Virginia University

The TUFFS initiative is coming to West Virginia soon. They’ll hold a meeting at WVU to address safety practices in high school athletics in early October. 

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