Team doctor outlines possible route back to competition

Former Consultant surgeon Mr. Kevin Moran.

YOUNG athletes can look forward to travelling, meeting and training together as soon as early summer.
Mr Kevin Moran, Donegal GAA team doctor, said the Covid-19 pandemic was a rapidly evolving situation. He believes a clearer picture will begin to emerge in June.
Earlier this month, the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, stated that large sporting gatherings are unlikely to be permitted in 2020.
However, Mr Moran, a retired Consultant Surgeon at Letterkenny University Hospital, said that an element of pragmatism and imagination will be required, probably with games played behind closed doors, if the GAA Championship is to proceed this year.
At a local level, he’s more hopeful that some relaxation of restrictions will allow club players to meet and train by June according to very strict protocols where social distancing is observed.
In addition to economic and educational considerations, the retired surgeon said that a number of other issues will have to be addressed.
Unprecedented Challenges
“The inevitable collateral medical damage will be more apparent with delayed diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients and deferred adjuvant treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“The morbidity associated with delayed diagnosis and treatment of common medical conditions such as ischaemic heart disease and stroke will be apparent. Anecdotal reports suggest a significant increase in anxiety, depression and suicide risk in the population as a whole,” he said.
An additional challenge will be to address the vacuum created by the necessary restrictive measures – a vacuum he says that has been filled with alcohol abuse and online gambling.
Fit young athletes
“Amateur and professional athletes from a variety of sports including Gaelic Games have been infected with Covid-19. No fatalities have been reported. Most describe a severe flu-like illness that is slow to resolve.
“It would appear that the immune competence of healthy, fit young athletes is not in question. There is an abundance of evidence, particularly in relation to healthcare workers, that the amount of virus invading the body has an important role in establishing infection and overwhelming the immune system.
“In what circumstances would a player be exposed to a viral load while training or playing on the pitch? And are there measures that could prevent or minimise viral exposure? Answers to these questions would be key,” he admitted.
The GAA in the Pandemic
“The GAA is the glue that binds many communities together. It can be difficult to determine where the community begins and where the GAA club ends. The role of the GAA has never been more important. Clubs and members have rigorously followed medical guidelines, giving good example and promoting social solidarity and cohesion.
“Facilities including Croke Park and O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny have been offered and are used for viral testing. Clubs have joined an initiative to support the elderly and vulnerable.
“The GAA also plays a major role in the psychological health of the nation, providing a sense of identity, belonging and well being. This is particularly important for the elderly and infirm who cannot attend games but follow on television,” he said.
Planning the Championship
“The GAA has been unfairly criticised for failing to outline a revised Championship schedule. For reasons that are now clear, this was not possible. It now appears that the decision will be whether or not to play the games behind closed doors. If this is the decision, then a number of measures could be introduced to minimise the risk for players, management and back room team. This could include antibody tests for everyone involved, the use of smartphone apps, temperature monitoring and a strict protocol for training,” he said
Training and playing.
“Physical distancing would be practised as far as possible. If proven that antibody tests are able to determine immune status, the overall group (players/management/support staff) will be divided into two groups: those that are immune and those that are vulnerable.
“Individuals that are vulnerable could travel on their own, tog out on their own, take food home and shower at home. Knowledge of each player’s medical history, antibody status, use of a dedicated smartphone app, and continuous temperature monitoring would mean that it would be unlikely that any player deemed well enough to train or play would be excreting the virus in large volumes. So far there is no evidence that the virus is excreted in sweat.
“The unknown question is what quantity of virus could be exhaled by an apparently fit, healthy player and what quantity could be taken on board on a GAA pitch in the open air. Answers to these questions may decide the future of club and intercounty competition in 2020,” he said.
In the next days or weeks, the GAA will have difficult decisions to make – do they cancel the Championship or play behind closed doors. Is there a possibility of having limited attendances present with a protocol designed by public health? Is commencing club championships before Auguat and Intercounty before September a realistic option? Above all, can the safety of everybody involved be ensured? Whatever happens this year, there will have been no precedent in the 126 years of the Association.

Mr Moran is a member of the Medical Scientific and Player Welfare Committee in Croke Park but he was speaking to the Donegal News in a personal capacity.

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