At the beginning of the year, the prospect of another lost season seemed likely. Much of the schedule had already been cancelled. The COVID virus had become more dangerous than ever before. New cases were accelerating. Deaths were reaching unbelievable heights. The vaccine rollout seemed weeks away, if not months away. Uncertainty was the norm.
The fall/winter surge created kill zones, here and abroad. Two of the more notable kill zones were in California and Florida. Quietly, in Florida, the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Global Dressage Festival began as scheduled. They would become the foundation to set the Olympic selection process (USA and Canada) and fill the remaining slots in the World Cup Finals.
The question needed to be asked, “Why the urgency to be back in the saddle?” Thousands were dying, and the equestrian governing body, the FEI, seemed more intent on restarting the sport. Similarly, ranked professionals ignored international travel restrictions, calling their travel essential. “Would you risk your life just to qualify for an Olympic or World Cup slot?” In Europe, the risk was two-fold, COVID (people) and EHV-neuro (horses). Apparently, the risk was seen as manageable. Many did not know anyone who contracted COVID, let alone be hospitalized or die. It was an abstract. EHV-neuro only affected horses, so it didn’t matter as much.
Japan was having difficulty in containing COVID at the start of the year as they are now. The FEI deemed several shows could continue despite the spread of the highly contagious EHV-neuro. It all seemed very reckless, the attitudes very cavalier.
Laurie asked the daughters, “Vaccine, no vaccine, is it really worth your life?” An uncomfortable question, certainly, but one that goes to the heart of what matters. It was prompted by the loss of 82 patients over the course of three days in her units, followed by the addition of 107 COVID terminal patients. By any accounting, those numbers are staggering. Unimaginable grief for 82 families, and another 107 families soon facing the same anguish in the coming hours, days and weeks.
The question did bother them, as it should. They had time to conduct their due diligence, to carefully plan their show schedule and travel arrangements. To develop a plan on how to return home if one of us became ill with COVID. If a new season was to commence, it would likely coincide with the start of the new FEI year in April. Every indicator pointed in this direction.
While they were vaccinated in Group 1A of the rollout, the daughters are subject to ongoing testing every 2-3 days, on a randomized basis. They are subject to ongoing COVID mitigation protocols of mask wearing, physical separation and other hygienic practices. Both testing and mitigation protocols render vaccination status a moot issue. Basically, they are not your typical equestrians, who may, or may not, be vaccinated. Who may, or may not, be tested on a regular basis. Who may, or may not, follow protocol 100% of the time. Instead, they are your typical medical students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, subject to vaccination, frequent testing, following and practicing protocols during a pandemic.
When the 21 season began in April, the robust vaccine rollout and declining new case-hospitalization-death numbers fueled a wave of optimism. Perhaps, just perhaps, the COVID pandemic could be in the rearview mirror. However, there was a substantial, widespread reduction in testing. Also ignored were those who were experiencing severe adverse reactions. Those severe adverse reactions are considered miniscule when compared to the larger body of the vaccinated. In the past, those severe adverse reactions would be enough to halt a vaccine program. Unbeknownst to many, including infectious specialists, the data were beginning to indicate more virulent variants were on the horizon. Variants that are able to evade testing, not respond to treatment, showing initial signs of vaccine resistance. Would knowledge of any of this make a difference? Not likely.
To compete in the COVID environment, a rider must submit a liability waiver, a risk acknowledgement, and an acceptance of COVID regulations. While there is an overlap among these documents, the show applicant (rider) would fully understand they are competing during a public health emergency, and the possibility of contracting COVID exists. Support crew members are required to submit the same set of documents. Similarly, they would understand the conditions they would be working in.
Additionally, riders and their support crews would be subject to random temperature checks, mask wearing, physical distancing, and other mitigation practices deemed necessary. Failing to follow protocol could result in summary disqualification and possible suspension. (There are no warnings.) In show rings and practice rings, only riders are allowed to remove their masks. It only takes a single, positive COVID test result, by anyone, to disrupt a show, to close a venue.
As an extra safety margin, we conducted our own COVID testing program while on tour. Every 2-3 days, we would collect throat swabs. Those swabs were sent back to Laurie’s department for PCR analysis by FedEx overnight priority. Diagnostic notes regarding collection and general health condition corresponding to each test swab are included. Within 2-4 hours of receipt, test results are generated. Two reports of the results are printed. One report is directed for inclusion in the corresponding digital health record, while the other report is delivered via email to the corresponding sample contributor. In different environments, over the course of 11 weeks – Saratoga, Saugerties, San Juan Capistrano, Denver – it made sense to test aggressively. Each locale had experienced active COVID outbreaks. Having the ability to produce results of a recent COVID test has it advantages. The primary advantage is current health condition vis-à-vis COVID, and the other is if there is a question about our COVID status. Of course, we are billed accordingly.
While the COVID vaccines are important, they only represent a portion of the protection scheme. They only minimize the effects of a COVID infection. They do not prevent contraction; they do not halt transmissibility. They are not curative. The best way to protect oneself, it remains wearing a mask.