BY MILES PREKOSKI
When you see the Carmel High football field while driving on Highway 1 towards Big Sur, you might be reminded of the successes of the football team in the CCS playoffs or the numerous Shoe Game victories that took place in the venue. One topic that won’t cross many minds, however, is the degree of cleanliness of the field and the facilities that surround it.
That’s why when multiple student-athletes came down with staph infections at the beginning of the winter sports season in December, Carmel’s athletic trainer and Sports Medicine teacher Matt Borek thought that he may have a problem on his hands. Since then, concerns have been raised by administration and sports med staff as to whether the synthetic turf field or certain facilities like the CHS weight room could have led to student infections and how teachers on campus can be aware of what to do about infections on campus.
Carmel High athletic director and head football coach Golden Anderson was looped into the situation when he was reaching the end of the 2019-20 football season. Anderson and CHS Principal Jonathan Lyons became aware of the situation in early December after receiving health reports about cases that took place mid-November.
“We were made aware of cases that happened all at a similar time, cases that were happening in the same area of the campus, so we alerted our custodial staff at that time,” Anderson says.
The athletic director notes that it’s important for staff to not just identify an open wound, but take further steps.
“It wasn’t just a question of ‘Did you get an open flesh wound?’ or ‘Is the wound covered?’ It was about making sure we were diligent in sanitizing the weight room, sanitizing the football field and making sure our teachers and coaches are aware of problems,” adds Anderson, who is entering his 14th year as athletic director and 11th as head coach.
To keep a finely manicured appearance, it’s common practice in the United States to use biocides and weed-killers in certain amounts on synthetic fields, per research conducted by Georgia State University. Biocides have been known to increase the risk of infections from staph bacteria and MRSA, a strain of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Most research points towards the dangers of synthetic turf focus on the chemicals found in turf itself, but little has been documented nationally regarding the chemical cleaning of turf fields.
Staph infections are transmitted through staphylococcus bacteria, which are common among all individuals. According to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic for Patient Health, there are three million cases of staph infections in the U.S. per year and common staph bacteria can be found in one in three individuals. Infections can turn more serious if bacteria enters the bloodstream or environments where individuals are working with food.
For CHS students, the issues arose after athletes transitioned indoors for winter sports like basketball and wrestling.
“Mr. Borek was talking to us about MRSA spreading around, and I thought it was kind of weird,” says a student-athlete who contracted MRSA during the first semester. “We have these pads that we use for basketball that get really sweaty and we don’t clean them, so we were talking about how that’s a problem too. It was around that time I got a scratch on my arm.”
This particular student case wasn’t serious, but the student noted that multiple weeks passed between getting the scratch seeing a doctor. In the meantime, it was important to keep the wound covered and discuss sanitation of facilities.
The issue of staph and MRSA infections spreading among students at schools isn’t uncommon, either. In the past 10 years, multiple cases of high school and college student-athletes have surfaced regarding infections stemming from two major factors: cosmetic body shaving and turf burns. In a recent 2015 case, a Kentucky high schooler sued his high school after being infected with MRSA, according to reports from the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition.
While CUSD nurse Debra Taylor wouldn’t confirm details regarding cases in the 2019-20 school year for confidentiality purposes, Taylor was able to confirm multiple students came down with infections and multiple were student-athletes.
“[The football field] could have been a factor in the case of any student who had played on the field,” notes Taylor, confirming that other students she saw were not playing football during the 2019-20 season.
Both Borek and Anderson say that students often come down with a higher level of injuries and infections towards the beginning of the winter season. This time, according to Borek, a student transitioning out of the football program had developed MRSA.
The infections prompted conversations between administration and the CHS custodial staff. Borek was one of the first to raise his concerns about the cases sports medicine had been seeing, which eventually led to health reports issued to Lyons and Anderson.
“We can’t be 100 percent positive if it was our turf that caused the problems, but the fact that we had multiple students coming in meant that we needed to look back at what we’ve been doing,” says Borek, who’s served as the Sports Med teacher for 13 years and spends hundreds of hours on the football field throughout the year.
In mid-November, the teacher contacted administration and the director of transportation and facilities Dan Paul.
“Any transfer of bacteria can lead to infections, although proper hygiene can reduce the risk,” says Paul, who emphasizes that the district grounds crew and custodial staff follows guidelines set by the Synthetic Turf Council and TurfField, the manufacturer of CHS’s synthetic field.
In terms of maintenance on the football field, there are no district-wide regulations or rules. Following those guidelines includes conducting weekly maintenance on the field with a grooming machine, inspections for any issues that may cause problems and cooperation with the manufacturer when necessary. A cleaning chemical isn’t used to disinfect the entire field on a regular basis, but instead used to spot-clean whenever bodily fluids are found on the field.
“We’re certainly keeping an eye, and we want to make sure we keep the facilities clean by meeting with the custodial staff on a regular basis,” Lyons says. “When these things start to pop up, we have to become extra fastidious in our areas that are high traffic amongst our athletes; that means weight rooms, locker rooms, and especially public facilities.”
As the winter season wraps up and students transition back toward the outdoors for spring sports, cases of infections won’t be forgotten as a possible concern for CHS administration and athletes alike.