OXFORD — One might stereotype football coaches as out of their element on issues like staph infections, as people consumed with Xs and Os and glad to delegate efforts to prevent infections.
Meet Pleasant Valley’s Jeff Davis, who has his team keep disinfectant sprays and wipes in their lockers and wipe down equipment regularly.
Meet Jacksonville Christian’s Tommy Miller, who regularly uses foggers to disinfect his team’s locker, training and weight rooms.
Meet Anniston assistant Eddie Bullock, who keeps a daily cleaning schedule, complete with a sign-in chart, and regularly disinfects the locker room.
Meet Oxford’s John Grass, who uses ionizers in the Yellow Jackets’ field house.
They’re not the only football coaches in northeast Alabama who take preventive measures, but they have been personally touched by staph cases.
One of Davis’ players, senior David Pitts, is paralyzed from the sternum down because of MRSA, the most severe form of staph infections.
One of Miller’s players, David Parris, is missing his junior season after a nearly year-long bout with an MRSA abscess that, like Pitts’ infection, settled on his spine.
Another of Miller’s players, Ward Reid, spent nine days in the hospital this month because of a lesser staph infection.
Bullock battled a painful MRSA infection on his nose, an infection that doctors told him likely stemmed from his duties cleaning uniforms.
Grass’ diabetic, 71-year-old father died four years ago when staph complicated his recovery from surgery.
These coaches are quite staph-conscious and knowledgeable. If they gave a pep talk, the theme would be prevention.
“If you’re not doing something to prevent it, you’ll have cases,” Grass said. “It don’t take but one to get started, and you’ll have five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 players with it.”
And prevention is the best medicine, because infections can be tricky to diagnose and treat.
In Pitts’ case, MRSA eluded diagnosis for weeks. In Parris’ case, it was months.
Once diagnosed, MRSA is difficult to treat. It’s the worst of staph infections precisely because of its resistance to antibiotics.
Antibiotics work better on lesser forms of staph, but for how long? Bacteria can mutate and catch up to antibiotics used against it.
Raul Magadia, an Anniston physician who specializes in infectious diseases, said antibiotics on the market today could become less effective over the next 10 years. New antibiotics likely will not hit the market soon because developing them does not greatly profit pharmaceutical companies.
Antibiotics go generic after a certain number of years. Also, patients are treated with antibiotics for a limited time, as opposed to drugs used to treat long-term afflictions like diabetes.
“The best that you can do for a staph infection is to prevent it,” Magadia said. “… We can give you the most expensive, the fanciest antibiotic there is, but it costs a lot.
“The best thing is to prevent it from happening.”
Magadia said personal prevention starts with the basics of a healthy diet, exercise and hygiene, especially hand washing.
And not just cursory handwashing.
Magadia recommends washing for at least 15 seconds. He has lectured on staph at Anniston and Oxford high schools and told athletes there to sing “Happy Birthday” to themselves, because the song covers the right time frame.
Those who have battled staph do not need the lecture.
“I wash my hands now a lot more than I used to,” Parris said.
Bullock said he had always taken such measures, but he has stepped up personal prevention since his bout with MRSA on the tip of his nose in late spring and summer of 2008.
“What it really made me more conscious of is, even if my nose itches, I won’t touch it without washing my hands,” he said. “I wash them probably twice as much now than before. I won’t rub my eyes or nose or anything like that.”
Bullock also keeps antibacterial soap in his bag, along with a change of clothes, in case it rains.
“You’ve got to preach hygiene and cleanliness with it,” he said. “The doctor said it’s not a guarantee, but you’ll pretty much be in the safe group.
“If you get a scratch or cut or something, the first thing I do is wash it out with antibacterial soap for about 10 minutes. I make sure. It works for me.”
As for team prevention measures, don’t share towels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated a staph outbreak among a high school football team in New York and found towel-sharing to be the culprit.
Grass learned how subtle the cause of a staph outbreak can be when he coached at Moody. The team’s coaches scoured the locker and weight rooms and found a batch of unwashed wristbands.
“We were cleaning everything,” Grass said. “We had washed. We had cleaned, and we had wiped everything down for like two weeks straight, and we were still having a case or two here and there of it.
“We finally traced it back to our wristbands. We were not washing them on a daily basis. We’re signaling stuff now, but when we used wristbands, we weren’t cleaning the wristbands. It was getting on their arms and elbows and stuff. It can be just one little thing.”
Grass takes several preventive measures at Oxford, a well-funded Class 6A program. Besides room ionizers, he has players take their equipment home once a week for washing. Oxford’s uniforms are washed in staph-killing detergent.
Otherwise, “We use Lysol,” Grass said. “We have a spray that we use to spray down every locker, the equipment room, the floor in there and everything.
“We try at least three or four different things.”
Davis said he’s seen “several cases” of staph infections over his 32 years of coaching and took measures before Pitts tumbled in basketball practice this past season, apparently touching off the MRSA infection that caused paralysis.
“We wash their practice clothes and gym shorts daily,” Davis said. “We encourage them not to take them home and leave them here, and we wash them and make sure they’re clean.
“We try to keep as much stuff around as possible — chemicals and things of that nature — that helps control it.”
Davis made adjustments in his prevention measures in response to Pitts’ situation and other cases in the past year where players had “bad places on them.”
Among new measures, Davis mandates Clorox wipes in lockers and keeping equipment wiped down. The Raiders also keep Germ-X in their lockers and are encouraged to wash hands before and after practice.
“It’s a scary situation,” Davis said.
At JCA, Miller’s preventive measures have included the regular use of a fogger in the team’s locker, training and weight rooms.
The device, which he has used for three years, floods a room with fog from FS Amine Z, a room-sanitizing chemical that is supposed to eradicate 99.99 percent of all bacteria.
Still, Parris and Reid came down with serious infections.
“I don’t know if you can just totally prevent it,” Miller said. “It takes a whole lot of cooperation anywhere. I don’t know anything else we can do at school to prevent it.”
On the college level, longtime Jacksonville State University trainer Jim Skidmore takes myriad measures. Just this year, the school added hand sanitizers throughout locker, weight and training rooms. JSU also washes practice and game uniforms after each use, and Skidmore lectures regularly about not sharing towels, cups, water bottles, razors … anything that comes in contact with skin, where staph lives.
JSU also tries to identify staph carriers through written medical histories, which include questions about staph.
With all Skidmore and his staff do, he also throws in a touch of good, old-fashioned fear.
“We try to keep everyone basically scared to death,” he said. “We’ve had minimal individuals who have been infected with staph, and we’ve tried to use them as an example to others.”
Susan Quinn would agree that a little fear is good. She’s Pitts’ mom and a registered nurse, and she advises parents not to take staph lightly.
“We took precautions like we thought that we should,” she said. “I would just say that, if your child is diagnosed with staph, make sure you find out if it’s MRSA.
“If it is, make sure that you go to an appropriate doctor.”