North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren remembers the stress attached to every round of COVID-19 testing for his football program last season.
Concern remains about the ongoing pandemic, though Doeren and his Atlantic Coast Conference peers are counting on high vaccination rates to minimize risks of illnesses or lineup-depleting contact tracing. That has meant teams working through the offseason's final weeks toward an 85% threshold of vaccinated players, coaches and staffers to allow an easing of mitigation steps such as social distancing at team meals or traveling.
“It’s a lot different than waking up every day, looking at my cell phone and seeing who has a runny nose,” Doeren said. “And these 20 players can’t come to the building because of it. We don’t have that anymore.”
That 85% full-vaccination target is prominent in the ACC Medical Advisory Group’s August report outlining protocols for players, coaches and support staff. For example, unvaccinated players' testing varies with the team's vaccination rate: at least once weekly if the team has hit 85% and at least thrice weekly if it hasn't, matching last year's rigid pre-vaccine plan.
By comparison, fully vaccinated individuals can bypass regular “surveillance” testing and aren't required to quarantine after a potential exposure if they're asymptomatic.
Coaches and athletics officials across the league have reported either reaching that goal or approaching it, such as Doeren's Wolfpack surpassing 90% along with the school implementing an all-sports policy prohibiting unvaccinated individuals from traveling for away games.
Boston College, Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest had the added boost from a vaccine mandate for all students, barring an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
Reaching the 85% threshold allows the return to some degree of normalcy after a year filled with virtual meetings, even as cases and hospitalizations have risen again in many areas nationally.
“We’re above the 85% so we can meet as a team, and that’s been so much better,” said North Carolina Mack Brown, whose 10th-ranked Tar Heels visit Virginia Tech on Friday night.
“We can eat together, we can meet in our meeting rooms together. We do wear masks when we’re inside, you can take it off to eat," Brown said. “We will wear masks on the buses going up to Virginia Tech, but we will be able to eat on the bus coming back.”
Some schools, such as Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, aren’t releasing exact figures but said they have reached the 85% mark. Others reported pushing past 90%, including Louisville, Syracuse (98%) and Boston College – which is at 100% after having one player transfer out rather than get the shot.
At Florida State, coach Mike Norvell said more than 90% of the team “has started the process toward full vaccination” while later adding: “We’re well on our way.”
Third-ranked Clemson reported 85.5% of players and more than 92% of football staff either had started or completed the vaccination process as of Aug. 23.
“We’ve done everything we can to educate and provide great information and encourage these guys to talk to their doctors,” said coach Dabo Swinney, who was vaccinated in March. “That was the biggest thing for me. I don’t know a single doctor that I trust, that I talk to, that said, ‘Don’t get it.’ They all said, ‘You need to get it.’ I trust my doctors.”
At Wake Forest, 126 of 129 players were fully vaccinated by the start of preseason camp.
“I just think the players were so miserable and so exhausted from a year ago that they didn’t want to go through that,” Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson said.
Miami coach Manny Diaz still sees a challenge of ensuring players don't let their guard down about protocols, even with about a dozen unvaccinated players from a 113-man roster for the 14th-ranked Hurricanes.
“That’s trickier this year than even last year because of what’s going on outside this building,” Diaz said. “I think they know that when we get into here, and this time of year, that it’s about protecting the team and you have to make team choices sometimes over individual choices.
“But the reality is they spent a lot more time outside this building than they do inside this building. So you don’t know. That’s why I’m thankful that we have such a high percentage of guys vaccinated.”
As for the holdouts, some coaches figure the time has passed for changing minds now that Week 1 is here. That list includes Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, who estimated his team was at 93-94% to start preseason camp.
“At the end, the guys have just got to figure it out,” Narduzzi said. "The good thing is we're in a good spot as far as (vaccination) goes and sometimes you just kind of give up. So I’ve given up on the last, whatever, 5% — whatever it is – and focus on game week.”
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen, Gary B. Graves, Will Graves, Pete Iacobelli, John Kekis, Hank Kurz, Charles Odum and Tim Reynolds; and AP freelancer Bob Ferrante contributed to this report.
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