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COVID-19 clusters increase among middle and high school sports teams; NCDHHS encourages vaccination, strong COVID-19 protection measures

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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is seeing a sharp increase in COVID-19 clusters among school sports teams. For the period between July 1 and Sept. 2, 2021, clusters among school sports teams accounted for 45% of all clusters in North Carolina middle and high schools, despite most school sports activities not beginning until August as schools began the fall semester. School sports teams are urged to follow NCDHHS guidance for youth sports. 

There is increasing urgency for everyone ages 12 and older to get vaccinated as soon as possible. For the week ending Sept. 4, children age 17 and under made up 31% of the state’s new COVID-19 cases. That is the highest percentage since the pandemic began.

“We need everyone, including our student athletes and their coaches, to increase layers of prevention to fight this more contagious Delta variant: Don’t wait to vaccinate and urge others to do the same,” NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer and State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D., MPH. “Tested, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Student athletes who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after a close contact with someone with COVID-19.”

Between July 1 and Sept. 2 there have been at least 42 athletics-related clusters in North Carolina public, charter and private middle and high schools, with a sharp increase in August coinciding with the start of the school year. Only four athletics clusters occurred in July. While NCDHHS data cannot distinguish how people were exposed in these clusters, past public health investigations in other states have shown that spread among teammates often happens off the field, including during practice. To protect students’ privacy, no other identifying information, including county or school, will be released.

Elementary schools are excluded from this breakdown since many do not have school athletics but schools with students K-12 are included. The athletics classification is made when NCDHHS receives the initial cluster report so these numbers most likely do not include clusters that later impacted a team. All data is preliminary and is subject to change.

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized and approved in the United States continue to be remarkably effective in reducing risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death, even against the widely circulating Delta variant. Teens ages 12 to 17 can get the Pfizer vaccine. To find providers with the Pfizer vaccine, go to MySpot.nc.gov and filter for Pfizer. Young people 18 and older can get the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. TeenVaxFacts.com sends a clear, fact-based message to teens and parents: Don’t wait to vaccinate.


In addition to getting vaccinated, to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect our communities, NCDHHS recommends everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces if they live in an area of high or substantial levels of transmission as defined by the CDC until more people are vaccinated and viral transmission decreases. In North Carolina, that is currently all 100 counties.

In addition to wearing face masks in indoor settings, NCDHHS also recommends sports programs practice social distancing when possible, disinfect equipment frequently and avoid sharing water bottles. Teams should also consider working out, including weight training, in groups or pods to limit exposure should someone become sick. Sports in which participants have frequent and prolonged contact, such as basketball, football, cheerleading, wrestling and others, are higher risk. Additional recommendations can be found in NCDHHS’ Interim Guidance for Administrators and Participants of Youth and Amateur Sports Programs.

Anyone who has symptoms of or has been exposed to COVID-19 should get tested as soon as possible. To find a testing site in your community, go to www.ncdhhs.gov/GetTested. People who are not experiencing serious symptoms should not go to the emergency department for routine COVID-19 testing. People should seek medical attention immediately for serious symptoms such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, or bluish lips or face.

While vaccines provide the best protection from COVID-19, treatment options such as monoclonal antibodies may be available if you have had symptoms of COVID-19 for 10 days or less or have been exposed to COVID-19. If taken early, they can reduce the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death. Monoclonal antibodies are authorized for use in patients ages 12 and older. Ask your doctor about monoclonal antibodies or call  1-877-332-6585 (English) or 1-877-366-0310 (Spanish). 

For more information about COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina, visit MySpot.nc.gov or call the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Help Center at 888-675-4567. You can also text your zip code to 438829 to find vaccine locations near you.