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On the same day the Big Ten Conference announced a return to football games starting in October, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike took several pointed questions about returning to high school football in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The difference, they said, between the two, is the availability of testing.
"When you’re talking about the Big Ten and professional sports, it’s different, because of the amount of testing, the number of doctors available, the testing for myocarditis," Pritzker said. "That’s not something that is happening at the high school level"
The Big Ten will conduct daily, rapid antigen testing as one of its protocols, something Ezike cited as a major hurdle for high-contact high school sports.
"I don’t know how many high school teams or grade school teams would have the ability to provide that level of testing, daily testing," Ezike said.
Illinois remains one of the few states that has not resumed or reversed a decision on the resumption of a football season. Pritzker was firm in his comments at a Tuesday news conference that he was "not willing to sacrifice people's lives or their health," despite several surrounding states pushing forward with football.
The recently formed Let Us Play IHSA Sports and Activities movement announced a pair of rallies to support the return of all IHSA sports and activities as soon as possible for Saturday in Chicago and Springfield.
Ezike said her department is working with the IHSA and IDPH and IHSA have similar goals.
"We all want the same thing," Ezike said. "We don’t want to pit anybody against each other. Everybody wants the same end point, and we’re just trying to get there in the safest way possible."
Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist with Rush University Medical Center, said the science on why football is a high-risk sport was clear.
"Contact team sports, such as football or hockey, can be super spreader event," Lin said. "Just one youth athlete showing up with the virus can start a chain reaction that can quickly threaten the entire team.
"It becomes a risk for our entire community."
Pritzker was asked what the threshold would be for sports to return, whether it was positivity rate or some other metric.
"There is not a positivity level that [doctors] are labeling for me that at this level, it’s safe," he said.
Ezike added her department is "taking advantage" of being able to watch other states and countries resume sports and learn from that experience, along with any more information about treatment and long-term effects for children, such as Mis-C — Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children — that has been linked to COVID-19 infections.
"We want to find a route to get there, minimizing the numbers of lives lost," Ezike said.