A few days before the long-awaited start of the Big Ten football season, Ohio State coach Ryan Day was not about to celebrate a win over COVID-19.
“To look at it like it’s been a success right now would be premature because we have two more months,” Day said. “This is not a week-to-week thing. It’s all the way until January. We might be good for two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, five weeks. We stub our toe and have an outbreak and lose games. We can’t afford to do that.”
This goes for all college football teams as they try to play through the pandemic. Coronavirus outbreaks at Baylor, Memphis, Arkansas State, Notre Dame, Florida and elsewhere have forced programs to shut down for as much as two weeks. As of Thursday, 34 games involving Bowl Subdivision teams have been postponed or canceled.
On the other side of an outbreak, though, things can be less stressful for teams and their coaches. Before the Southeastern Conference opened its season last month, LSU coach Ed Orgeron awkwardly gave voice to the unexpected upside of having had a large number of players infected.
“Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it,” Orgeron said. “So I think that hopefully they don’t catch it again and hopefully they are not out for games.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that infected individuals not be tested for COVID-19 for 90 days after recovery unless they show symptoms. Researchers have found reinfection is unlikely for about three months and there have been few documented cases of re-infection for COVID-19 worldwide.
Those who have been infected are also exempt for 90 days from being contact traced into a 14-day quarantine for being exposed to an infected individual.
All the major college conferences are following those recommendations for previously infected individuals in their COVID-19 protocols.
That's a big deal.
Florida, which had to postpone its last two games, has more than two dozen players and coaches who have tested positive for the virus and had to isolate for at least 10 days. Florida has not said how many players were forced to quarantine as close contacts, but coach Dan Mullen did acknowledge he would have had fewer than 50 players available last week.
When Florida gets past this, all those who tested positive will be in the clear for the rest of the season.
The Gators are hardly celebrating. Mullen, who also tested positive, said the team won't practice again until Monday and even then won't have all its players available to prepare for Missouri on Oct 31. Florida's other postponed game, against LSU, has been moved to Dec. 12.
The timing of Notre Dame's outbreak was a little better. The Fighting Irish postponed their game at Wake Forest on Sept. 24 and had an open date the following week. Notre Dame had 25 players test positive.
That's 25 fewer players to worry about the rest of the season, though coach Brian Kelly was concerned about not having much flexibility left on the schedule if Notre Dame has another outbreak.
“There’s no wiggle room for the kind of setback that we’ve had,” Kelly said.
Arkansas State had two games postponed in September because of COVID-19 issues. Athletic director Terry Mohajir said at no point was he thinking it was good to have gotten an outbreak out of the way.
“In theory, if you go through it and you can weather the storm on the back end of it you’re obviously not having to test as many people," he said. “I think you would much rather not have a bunch of positives that could be symptomatic or asymptomatic and weather the storm that way and test negative. That’s better in my mind.”
Dr. Greg Stewart, head physician for Tulane athletics, said athletes who have tested positive could be used strategically to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Want to make sure your quarterback doesn't get infected? Maybe have him sit closest to your previously infected players on the team bus or plane. Making room assignments on the road? Put the players who have recovered from COVID-19 with those who haven't been infected.
“It’s almost like a fire break,” Stewart said.
The CDC this week changed its definition of a close contact in a way that could make it tougher for teammates who spend a lot of time with one another to avoid quarantine in future outbreaks.
Any immunity built up within a group decreases the likelihood of an outbreak within the group, but epidemiologist Zachary Binney at Emory University said the way football teams tend to operate could present opportunities for multiple outbreaks within a big roster.
“Who interacts with whom?” Binney said. “If you have an outbreak that takes out your entire defense, then that doesn't necessarily protect your offense later on, especially if it's going to be the offense that's spending time with each and the defense spending time with each other.”
In the Big Ten and other conferences that will be starting their seasons over the next few weeks, there is no room to get any of the residual benefits that come with getting through an outbreak.
The Big Ten is set to play a nine-week schedule with no breaks. If a game can't be played, there is no way to make it up. Plus, the Big Ten has the strictest return to play protocol of any conference: Athletes who test positive will be out of competition for at least 21 days.
Dr. Jim Borchers, team physician at Ohio State, said the 21-day rule was not put in place as a way to get coaches and players to take the COVID-19 protocols more seriously. It might be a byproduct, though.
“I think in the Big Ten's protocol, the need for an extensive evaluation in return to activity ... I hope that that is certainly going to promote that the best thing to do is to prevent the infection,” he said.
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