Dr. Andy Chen was brought in by USA Nordic as Chief Medical Officer right as the global pandemic hit. It’s fair to say that Dr. Chen has been busy lately. In the following interview, Dr. Chen gives valuable insight into how USA Nordic team doctors have helped the organization navigate Covid-19.
As Chief Medical Officer for USA Nordic, what were your first steps when this all began?
When the pandemic came into full swing in the United States, we were in the heat of the 2019-20 World Cup Season. As stay-at-home orders became widespread at home, we were faced with the prospect of having our top athletes overseas as the pandemic swept through Europe. USANS was confronted with the difficult decision of whether to cancel the remainder of the season, including Ski Flying World Championships in Planica. Ultimately, we decided that the health and well-being of our athletes were paramount and were able to bring them home just prior to the closing of international borders. Shortly thereafter, the remainder of the season was officially canceled, and other professional sports, including hockey and basketball, followed suit. Thankfully, all of our athletes returned home safely.
How helpful have resources such as the USOPC been during this time? Has USA Nordic been following by example or setting precedent with its response to Covid-19?
The USOPC has been tremendously helpful in dealing with COVID-related issues such as return to training and sport. Central to this has been our ongoing relationship with the current Medical Director of the USOPC, Dr. Jon Finnoff, who was the former Head Team Physician of the Nordic Combined team. We modified and adopted the USOPC’s recommended phased return to sport which has provided us with the necessary framework to return athletes to training, albeit with safeguards to maintain the health and safety of our athletes.
As an organization, we have been conservative with progression of return, and thankfully so as we have not experienced a spike in cases that has ravaged some teams. As I have known many of our athletes since they were youngsters and have witnessed them evolve into the elite athletes that they are today, I would be devastated if unnecessary risks were taken that resulted in harm to them or their ongoing efforts to be the best in the world. However, we continue to monitor the pandemic closely and have been proactive in implementing evidence-based medical recommendations to allow our athletes to safely return. Other teams have adopted our approach with good success as well.
How has the flow of communication worked between yourself and the USA Nordic staff during the past few months?
Unforeseen challenges have a tendency to bring out the best in individuals who are able to rise to the occasion. Despite concerns for family, personal health, and uncertainty with where this pandemic is headed, the staff, coaches, and team physicians that comprise the management of USANS have truly come together as one. Communication via video and teleconference, email, and text has been outstanding. Each of us understands that regardless of our pressures at home, as a small organization our individual input is vital to the continued safety of our athletes during these uncertain times.
Are you involved in decision making or do you present the facts to coaches and they make decisions based on your facts? Walk me through how involved you have been in the decision making process for the organization.
With the technology available today, we are all inundated with voluminous amounts of information, some of which is accurate, much of which is speculative, and, unfortunately, a fraction of which is just plain wrong. My role as a physician for the team is to evaluate the available information from an evidence-based perspective and discuss with the team physicians, coaches, and staff on how best to proceed. As this pandemic is a constantly evolving, fluid situation, we have never been faced with an “obviously right” way to proceed. The best we can do is to synthesize the data and decide how to rationally proceed to allow our athletes to return to training and, hopefully, competition while minimizing risks. To this end, our medical executive committee, comprised of the head team physicians and the CMO, have been intricately involved in the decision making process. Since the onset of the pandemic, each proposed event, camp, or training opportunity has been exhaustively discussed with staff and coaches. In this process, we are careful to respect everyone’s opinion, and, although a few tail feathers have been ruffled, in the end we all know that we share a common goal.
When you work with USA Nordic staff on details pertaining Covid-19, what’s the goal?
Our top priority has always been to maintain the health and safety of our athletes. Although we understand that we cannot eliminate all risks of infection, we have worked diligently to develop policies and procedures to allow our athletes to return to training while minimizing risk of infection.
While competitions have been cancelled this summer, USA Nordic has conducted some successful training camps with groups of athletes from around the country. Have you been following the progress of these camps from a medical standpoint? If so, what are your takeaways?
In the months leading up to each of these camps, coaches, staff, and team physicians have spent countless hours discussing the feasibility and safety of these camps. To minimize risks of spread of infection, we discussed every detail, including room and training assignments, logistics, locations, and even who was going to shop for food and when. Jed Hinkley has done an outstanding job with implementation and enforcement of our procedures, and thus far, the camps have been carried out in a safe fashion. My main takeaway from this is that with the proper identification of potential risks, development of an effective plan, recognition of potential challenges, and strict implementation/enforcement of the plan, we have been able to return to sport in limited fashion. It does require “buy-in” and compliance of everyone involved, including coaches, athletes, and parents.
I know everything is day by day but how do you see this playing out in the next few months? Are you optimistic for athlete travel to Europe, competitions taking place, Etc. ?
I am cautiously optimistic that we will have limited competitions abroad this year, but possibly without fan attendance. My biggest concern is that of another pandemic wave during the Fall and Winter which could dramatically affect any or all planned competitions.
What has been the biggest challenge so far from your role?
The biggest challenge for me has been how to promote the mission of our organization–the advancement and support of ski jumping and nordic combined in the United States–in a reasonable and safe manner during a global pandemic. I am constantly pulled in different directions by parties with disparate interests, most of whom have solid reasons why we should or shouldn’t move forward with any given activity or idea. With medical issues, there is often no compromise, and we strive to maximize the health and safety of everyone involved. With the pandemic situation and recommendations in constant flux, my medical team has been working tirelessly to address issues related to the teams, athletes, and coaches. I am forever indebted to Drs. Glazer, Borowski, and Jelsing (the head team physicians) for handling these issues in expert fashion.
What’s the biggest thing you have learned throughout the past few months?
The most important lesson I have learned through the pandemic is that it takes a team approach to face an overwhelming challenge, and with a great team, anything can be surmounted.