How Sports Teams Work to Prevent Flu & Mumps,
And What Our Office Teams Can Learn From Them
By Dale Dauten, Syndicated Columnist
“You can only control so much. If you want to get technical about it, the players shouldn’t even be passing the ball to each other.”
That’s former head trainer for the Atlanta Hawks, David Wharton, on trying to keep players from passing the flu to each other.
“If someone in the pile got it, then we all got it.”
That’s Eric Staal, center for the Minnesota Wild hockey team, talking about mumps, and about how it could have spread during the team’s celebration of its overtime victory against L.A. in late February.
A few weeks before the Wild were congratulating each other on their win, the flu was running through the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was a big deal because it came as they were preparing for their AFC Championship game against the Patriots. Imagine spending millions of dollars and months of effort, while carrying the hopes of a city, and then mumps or the flu keeps players from performing. So it’s not surprising to see a report like this one from ESPN…
“The recent mumps outbreak in the NHL led to emergency team-wide immunizations, occasional player quarantines, the cancellation of holiday hospital visits and a re-examination of the league’s infectious disease prevention policies.”
Makes sense. But hold on. That report was from 2014. That was the previous outbreak. So today we ask…
What have sports teams learned about protecting their workplace teams?
And, do their precautions really make a difference?
FIRST, THE VACCINATIONS
Let’s go back and take a peek at a prevention program just a few years ago…
I asked STC’s Brent Holbrook, who was the quarterback for the University of New Mexico Lobos from 2006-2008, what he remembered about efforts to keep his teams from picking up infections. He said, “The one thing I can remember is the flu shots. There would be an announcement of flu shots on the big white board in the locker room. You’d walk over to the trainers’ facility and get the shot. I remember it was always a Monday, and then the next couple days the trainers would come around and find anyone who hadn’t gotten a shot and remind them to get theirs. I don’t know that there was a policy that you had to get one, but I never heard of anyone objecting.”
(It’s not surprising that the shots were given early in the week. Research on the timing of vaccinations for athletes suggests allowing as much time as possible before the next competition. There is even research suggesting that the ideal timing of the vaccination is six hours after exercising.)
In Brent’s experience, vaccinations were all that the team offered in disease prevention. “It was pretty casual,” he recalled. “The trainers went around with buckets of water and everyone dipped their cups into it, and the trainers had towels thrown over their shoulders – you’d wipe off your face on a towel and put it back on the trainer and the next would grab that same towel and wipe his face.”
DO NOT PASS THAT TOWEL
That towel sharing is less likely today. In fact, the NBA has gone so far as to have a policy on towel sharing – strictly forbidden. Once a towel is towel touches a player, it’s straight to the laundry. (A trainer for the L.A. Lakers put the towel count at 250-300 per game.) And teams in every major sport have policies on not sharing cups or water bottles, as well as procedures to routinely wipe down locker rooms with disinfectant.
THE BOTTOM LINE: DO THE PRECAUTIONS REALLY MATTER?
With so many variables involved in the passing of disease, it’s difficult to test the overall effects of a team’s illness prevention effort. However, there is one study, conducted by five Norwegian researchers, that put numbers to it.
The Norwegian Winter Olympic team had a tough time of it in the Turin games of 2006, with 13 athletes getting sick and eight missing competition (out of 75 athletes). So, for the Vancouver games, the team undertook an aggressive prevention program.
Even before getting to the games, there was this:
“An extensive vaccination program for athletes, coaches and support staff against the H1N1 flu, seasonal influenza and pertussis/whooping cough was carried out, both at our Olympic sports center and with ambulatory personnel during team training camps.”
Then, among the measures during the competition…
- those deemed susceptible to respiratory tract infections were housed in single rooms,
- special indoor air cleaning systems were employed,
- there were “routines of minimized hand shaking and close contact with people outside the team,’ and
- carpeted hotel rooms were covered in plastic.
In other words, the Norwegians created a germophobe’s paradise. So…
How did they do?
While there could be no claims of cause and effect, the authors were able to report a drop in illness, from 17% (of 75 athletes) in Turin to 5% (of 100) in Toronto. The number of missing competitions dropped from eight to four, despite the larger team.
But hold on: the authors also reported that “the average illness rate for all nations in the Vancouver games was 7%.”
So was the intense anti-illness campaign worth the effort? We can’t even make conclusions about the size of the decrease, much less the cause — maybe the drop was something like ten percentage points, or maybe it was more like two.
So, again, is it worth the effort?
If it were possible to figure out which were the four Norwegian Olympians who did not miss competitions, and if we could ask them for their opinions, we know what it would be: THANK YOU! We can only conclude that every effort to protect athletes is good for the health of the team, and surely it gives a boost to morale, knowing that the team cares.
Quotes from Lakers’ and Hawks’ athletic trainers are from L.A. Times, March 10, 2009, David Wharton.
Eric Staal quote is from FoxNews.com, March 1, 2017.
Research on timing of vaccinations from are from Sports Medicine (Auckland New Zealand), 2014, by Barbara Gartner and Tim Meyer.
The Norwegian study appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012, by Dag Vidar Hanstad, et.al.