Athletic trainers stepped in to fill a variety of health care roles as the pandemic stretched on, and instructors and students with the University of Idaho’s athletic training program say in many ways, their work is only just beginning.

UI assistant professor Matthew Smitley, who also is the director of the university’s master’s degree program in athletic training, said as the pandemic played out, athletic trainers around the country were tapped to help screen and test for prospective COVID-19 patients and, in some cases, even aided in placing those in critical condition on ventilators. At the same time, he said, others had to create entirely new policies and procedures for returning patients who had previously been COVID-positive to a normal level of activity.

“COVID’s new -- I mean, no one knows what it does to the body completely yet, we don’t know the long term impacts on that,” he said. “We are on the front lines, essentially holding the flashlight on a dark path here and saying, ‘We’ve got to figure out what the best path forward is.’”

As sports schedules begin to resume -- some during what is traditionally their off-season -- Smitley said the work of athletic trainers has compounded. He said the aspects of their practice related to COVID-19 is already a full-time job, but it’s now being done in addition to their regular responsibilities, like injury prevention and diagnosis.

Smitley said this pressure has been further exacerbated by the way off-set sports seasons have stacked on top of one another this spring as they receive the green light to resume. He noted sports like football and soccer, which traditionally conclude in the fall semester, are holding games and practices right now, in addition to sports like baseball, tennis and track, which traditionally take place in the spring.

“It’s essentially doubled our workload as a profession,” he said.

Val Zwaanstra, who is in her second year with the program, said she was tapped to assist with COVID-19 testing. She said they had two hours blocked off almost every day that was reserved for testing, and it often cut into time they would have used to work with patients.

“At first it was kind of overwhelming, but then it just kind of became the norm; throughout the semester, we just kind of got used to it,” she said.

Zwaanstra’s classmate, Ryan Clark, said he also assisted with testing and agreed that it’s been a stressful year.

“I’ve been told that this has been the hardest year that anyone’s ever had to go through as far as working in athletic training -- that this has been a year unlike any other,” Clark said. “I think it’s definitely overwhelming at times because of just the sheer number of things that we have to do.”

Smitley said he is hopeful that, coming out of this crisis, the health care industry and the general public will have a new appreciation for the expertise athletic trainers bring to the table. He said while they’re an allied health care profession that is recognized by other health care professions, athletic training typically goes under-appreciated despite the wide variety of ways they can meaningfully contribute to the health care system as a whole.

“Athletic training is kind of an under-recognized profession, just because so much of what we do is behind the scenes,” he said. “We’re not just the ankle-tapers, we’re not just the people that stretch patients, we have so many skills and so it’s important for us to be recognized for the diversity of what we’re able to do.”

Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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