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Navigating the Challenges of Carpooling in a Pandemic

Several states are starting to ease restrictions on youth sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and parents are looking for ways to transition their kids back to their activities as safely as possible.

One thing many parents are grappling with is how to address transportation, and whether it’s safe to carpool to practices and games.

Leah Anklam, who lives just outside Minneapolis, is the mother of three young athletes — a girl and two boys. Her daughter’s summer lacrosse season was canceled, but her sons recently started hockey practice. The Anklams and two local families had plans to take turns carpooling their sons to and from the rink, but as the Anklams and one of the other families learned more about how COVID-19 is spread, they determined they aren’t yet comfortable with sharing rides.

“I think it’s important for people to be open and honest about what they’re feeling,” Anklam said. “Everybody’s at a different place with this. We have to be respectful, and we don’t know what families have at home — if there’s a person that is immunocompromised, or something like that.”

Regardless of whether people are comfortable carpooling at this time, it’s vital to take precautions when traveling to limit the risk of infection by following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and qualified experts studying the novel coronavirus.

The CDC recommends washing hands for at least 20 seconds, or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, prior to and after each road trip. It’s important to not touch the eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands. When sneezing or coughing, do so into a tissue or the inside elbow of the arm, and then immediately wash up or use hand sanitizer again. The CDC also states riders should wear cloth face masks, which cover the mouth and nose, when they are unable to be socially distant (the advised distance people should be separated is at least 6 feet).

The CDC recommends those riding in personal vehicles to follow the previous guidance, plus it states it’s important to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces — such as steering wheels, seat-belt buckles, dashboards, stereo knobs and buttons, door frames and handles, etc. —  between trips.

Natasha Martin, DPhil/PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at the University of California San Diego, heads a team working on the university’s Return to Learn program, which is meant to help the campus community resume in-person activities as soon as safely possible. With degrees from the University of Oxford and Stanford University, Dr. Martin has an extensive background in mathematics and biology, and is an infectious disease modeler.

Natasha Martin, associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Credit: UC San Diego Health Sciences
Natasha Martin, associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Health Sciences

 

Martin said she doesn’t think that carpooling will be the athlete’s highest risk of transmission for COVID-19, at least for most sports, when necessary precautions are taken. For example, athletes who play outdoor sports and can maintain more social distance are less at risk of infection compared to those who compete indoors and are in close proximity to each other, such as wrestlers.

Martin stated it’s safer to keep numbers down in vehicles as teams and players transition from practices to playing games with opponents, especially when traveling longer distances for competition.

“It makes sense that having smaller vehicles, and not cramming 20 students in a van for seven hours to go to a meet, would be better,” she said.

The CDC emphasizes having improved ventilation when riding in a vehicle, which reduces the risk of transmission. It’s typically best practice to have the windows down, rather than using the air conditioner, and if the air conditioner is used, avoid turning on the recycled air mode.

It’s also helpful to pay attention to who riders interact with, both in general and at the sporting event, as a form of contact tracing. Kids tend to not be as adept of how to protect themselves from viruses, and young people often show fewer symptoms, or are asymptomatic, which makes contact tracing important.

“You can be infectious without knowing it. I think anyone who’s in close contact, and that includes athletes, have to be particularly cognizant of that,” Martin said, adding that it’s important to follow the safety tips and guidance that’s available.

As shutdown restrictions ease in Minnesota, Anklam is employing her version of contact tracing by keeping track of who her kids interact with and where they go. She also encourages her kids to follow social distancing recommendations and asks them to wear masks when necessary.

Although she’s not yet sure when she’ll feel comfortable with letting her kids carpool with teammates and their families, Anklam knows that when it’s her turn to drive, she’ll be regularly cleaning surfaces in the vehicle, having everyone wearing masks, and distributing hand sanitizer to everyone.

“It’s hard not to have that carpool option right now,” Anklam said. “It’s just all about safety.”

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