By NASH NUNNERY
Will Ball is more than ready for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since March 13, the director of sports medicine and development for Rush Hospital Systems has spent 14-hour days screening patients and guests before they enter the Meridian hospital.
The affable Ball would rather be lending his vast expertise in sports medicine to the 30-plus high school athletic programs he covers around east Mississippi. He officially returned to his office on June 1 and couldn’t be happier.
“It’s great to be back, even though we were still evaluating and treating our athletes virtually with Zoom (meetings),” Ball said. “Under the guidelines of the Mississippi High School Athletic Association and Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, the athletes are back training at their respective high schools and the coaches have been very cooperative in following all the necessary procedures to keep the kids safe.
“It will be a slow process but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Not unlike other small businesses, Mississippi sports medicine clinics have changed due to the pandemic. With the shutdown of sports at all levels, there’s been a marked decrease in the rate of injuries.
Dr. Gabriel Rulewicz, a physician with Tupelo-based Orthopaedic Institute of North Mississippi, said COVID-19 has altered normal clinic operations in several ways. He estimates that in the first four weeks of the pandemic, there was a drop of 80-90 percent in clinic and surgical volume.
“We’re currently screening all patients and family for coronavirus outside the clinic prior to check-in, and patients will then wait in their car until time to be seen,” said Rulewicz. “The waiting room is set-up for social distancing, as well as check out. Masks are available to patients, and hand hygiene and terminal room cleaning are done between each patient.
“The one positive is the downtime has allowed athletes currently recovering from an injury more time to rehab and less pressure to return to play”, he added.
There is also a mental aspect of coronavirus for athletes that will need to be addressed, according to Rulewicz.
“There are guidelines for management of coronavirus-positive athletes, treatment of the team, and a return to training protocols,” he said. “This will likely be a fluid situation with changes made as we move forward.”
Ball says he’s looked to the MHSAA and MSAIS for guidance in proceeding to the next phase for high school athletes during the pandemic. Both Mississippi organizations follow instructions published by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
A spokesperson for the NFSHSA said in a statement that “until a cure, vaccine or very effective treatment is readily available, or so-called ‘herd immunity’ is confidently reached, social distancing and other preventative measures will be a ‘new normal’ if workouts, practices and contests are to continue.”
Though he doesn’t know exactly what to expect post- COVID-19, Rulewicz said the sports medicine and athletics community continue to work together on plans in dealing with the ongoing crisis. Testing of athletes, social distancing to some extent and updated recommendations for cleaning will be the rule rather than the exception on and off the field.
“For example, imagine weight rooms. This poses a complex problem with workouts,” Rulewicz said. “What number of athletes are allowed? When and what do you clean equipment with between workouts? There will also be a need for PPE and cleaning supplies, which may limit return.
“I think we are all looking forward to the return of sports but it is a complex issue.”
With the lag in proper care and training due to the pandemic, Ball predicts an abundance of sports-related injuries during initial workouts at the high school and college level.
“These kids have been following ‘safe at home’ and ‘shelter at home’ and then suddenly they rush into lifting (weights) and conditioning drills,” he said. “We are going to be extremely cautious in the beginning.”
Despite the interruption to his normal routine, Ball beams about a return to his regular duties.
“We’re in a profession that’s hands-on – it’s always better to get an in-person visualization (of an injury or training method),” he said. “There should be no guessing games when it comes to the evaluation of an athlete’s injury care and physical training.”
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