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Central Oregon school district calls for changes to mask requirements after athlete collapses

A Crook County High School basketball player was practicing last week when she collapsed. According to the district, after she lost consciousness and stopped breathing, a coach performed chest compressions before she was taken to the hospital.

The district said she’s fine now, but wearing a mask while playing impacted the flow of oxygen and led to her collapse.

“Security footage of practice confirms Savannah was wearing a mask when she started having trouble catching her breath and then passed out a short time later in the locker room,” read a letter sent Friday from Crook County School District Superintendent Sara Johnson. The school district did not include Savannah’s last name in its communications.

In the letter to the Oregon Department of Education, Johnson asked Gov. Kate Brown, ODE, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon School Activities Association to revise mask policies for athletes.

“Student safety is one of our highest priorities,” Johnson wrote.

“The rules that were developed by public health leaders early on in the pandemic should be reviewed and reconsidered as we recognize the impact those polices may have on students participating in athletics.”

The Oregon Department of Education referred questions about masks and athletics to state health officials.

The Oregon Health Authority said its requirements are in alignment with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We understand the parent’s concern and are sorry to learn what happened and we hope she is fully recovered,” said OHA’s Timothy Heider in a statement. “This has been a difficult balance. OHA is continually reviewing our guidance as new data come in and federal updates in guidance occur. Our current guidance is in alignment with the CDC.”

CDC guidance on youth sports has not been updated since Dec. 31, 2020, and suggests youth sports administrators “require the consistent and correct use of masks.” According to the guidance, people engaged in “high-intensity activities” may not be able to wear a mask if it’s hard to breathe. The CDC suggests limiting indoor “high-intensity” sports.

Savannah’s mother Jessica Lay wrote an email last Wednesday to her state representative, Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, asking for help. In the message, Lay described her daughter’s incident - from not being able to breathe and feeling like she was “suffocating,” to a coach administering CPR. It describes an ordeal including a police officer administering Narcan to revive her, blood tests and an EKG at the hospital. Lay said doctors told her it was an isolated incident and that her daughter was healthy.

“My daughter is a perfectly healthy freshman who plays multiple sports all year long, and has since she was 5-years old,” Lay wrote. “She has never had anything like this happen, ever.”

The next day, Breese Iverson wrote to Brown, asking her to change mask requirements.

“As our population moves towards ‘herd immunity,’” it’s time to take the next step and revisit the mandate for indoor sports, which has started in full around the state,” Breese Iverson wrote. “Just like professional sports, we can keep our kids safe without risking their health with restricted airflow.”

Currently, state guidance requires masks for most indoor and outdoor K-12 sports. Late last month, the state changed the rules for non-contact sports, allowing people competing in non-contact sports (like track and field, swimming, or tennis) to participate without a mask. The change came shortly after a Summit High School student collapsed after finishing the 800-meter dash, as reported by the Bend Bulletin.

According to the Bulletin and the Oregonian, the student’s coach called on the state to revise its mask policies for long-distance runners.

However, masks are still required for practice.

“We now have two local examples, indoors and outdoors, of masks impacting the health and safety of athletes,” Johnson wrote.

This is a developing story, watch for updates.

Editor’s Note: It is OPB’s general practice in most cases not to identify minors by last name.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Miller