Rockford Rams forfeit game after illness depletes team

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ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) —  Rockford is forfeiting its season opener after a virus sickened as many as 50 players, coaches and others connected to the varsity football team.

Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Michael Shibler made the announcement Thursday afternoon, after consulting with head coach Ralph Munger.

“It is his position that the game not be played due to the large percentage of athletes affected by the illness. I support Coach Munger’s position, therefore, the August 26 home opener has been cancelled. This will result in Rockford forfeiting the game, keeping in mind that safety and the health of our athletes is more important,” Shibler stated in an email to parents.

Some players have recovered and returned to practice, but others were still out sick Thursday. The district determined it did not have enough healthy players to field a game.

After consulting with Kent County health officials, Shibler said he would follow FDA recommendations that eligible athletes remain symptom-free for 48 hours before they suit up. The FDA says that’s the amount of time it typically takes for someone to no longer be contagious.

A team from the Kent County Health Department was at the Rockford Football Stadium Thursday, inspecting the facilities. They’re trying to determine the source of the flu-like illness. Sanitarians and epidemiologists are also contacting the parents of all varsity football players to find out where they’ve been and what they’ve eaten, looking for a common link.

“By gathering that data and looking at it from a statistical perspective, we can see what exposures were more likely than others to have caused this illness,” explained Adam London with the Kent County Health Department. “It look like this is probably something that they probably ate or drank or were exposed to in the past, and probably not an ongoing threat. But it’s still important that we answer that question.”

Shibler said he thought it was unlikely the cause of the problem was the water at the football field. All the teams drink that water, but only members of the varsity team became ill. Additionally, all of the district’s water was tested last spring following news of the water crisis in Flint.

Regardless, the district is stepping up efforts to clean and sterilize equipment and facilities before the start of football season and the start of school Monday. They’re also providing bottled water to athletes and staff on school grounds.

Shibler noted that the varsity team, including coaching staff and some fathers, went on an annual retreat to a campsite along the AuSable River near Roscommon in central northern Michigan. There was a pond at that site and some of the campers went swimming. That retreat was a couple of weekends ago; it was only a few days before some campers started getting sick.

According to WPBN, the NBC affiliate out of Traverse City,  about 17,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Au Sable River in Grayling, which is north of Roscommon, the same weekend as the retreat. That prompted a public health advisory for part of the river due to high levels of E. coli bacteria.

Kent County Health Department spokesman Steve Kelso told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday evening that the department knew about the retreat, but wasn’t aware of the sewage spill. He said health officials will look into it on Friday to determine if there’s any connection.

More answers will come in the next few days when lab test results come in from samples taken from patients.

So far, health officials are convinced this is not a wider public health issue.**Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Kent County Health Department wasn’t aware of the retreat. That was incorrect. It was aware of the retreat, but not of the sewage spill. The article has been clarified. We regret the error.

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