The NCAA released a wide-ranging set of guidelines Thursday for schools navigating a return to play, testing procedures and protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The document details standards for athletic programs to follow as the preseason for football — the major revenue generator in college sports — continues to ramp up ahead of the Sept. 5 openers. Among the key points in the release:
» Any student-athlete who tests positive for the coronavirus but is asymptomatic must isolate for at least 10 days after the test result. If that individual has symptoms, he or she should remain isolated until at least 72 hours after passing recovery in addition to the 10 days.
» Individuals with high-risk exposure to someone who tests positive must be quarantined for 14 days. This would include members of opposing teams after competition.
» Weekly in-season testing should occur for all student-athletes, plus “inner bubble” personnel including coaches, medical staff, game officials and other essential workers.
» Testing and results should occur within 72 hours of competition in high-contact-risk sports (including football, basketball, wrestling, soccer and volleyball). If PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing can’t be performed in that window, the event should be postponed or canceled unless an alternative plan is agreed upon in coordination with conference and local health officials.
“Any recommendation on a pathway toward a safe return to sport will depend on the national trajectory of COVID-19 spread,” said Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer, in the release. “The idea of sport resocialization is predicated on a scenario of reduced or flattened infection rates.”
Athletic department administrators have repeated for weeks that their main concern is overwhelmed public health departments as opposed to death rate or illness impact on young people.
The document reflects that concern by detailing several scenarios in which schools “should consider” pausing or discontinuing competitions and/or seasons. Two are beyond team control — campus-wide or community test rates considered unsafe by local public health officials as well as those officials deeming hospital infrastructures unable to accommodate a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations. Others are: a lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high-contact-risk cases on campus; an inability to perform weekly testing; an inability to perform adequate contact tracing.
Specifics regarding testing protocol — a key reason the Big Ten and Pac-12 already went to league-only schedules in 2020 — were also given. The “considerations” include all student-athletes and inner bubble personnel being tested as they arrive on campus. Summer activities, which teams are in now, should feature PCR testing of 25% to 50% of players/personnel every two weeks. In-season weekly testing should happen for all players and personnel.
The protocols likely mean teams will test players in the middle of a week — Wednesday — in preparation for Saturday’s football games, with test results ideally returning the next day or at least before the competition.
In a late-June interview, Nebraska football coach Scott Frost cautioned whether once-a-week testing would for certain catch every case. It might find the student-athlete who contracted COVID-19 at the previous week’s game, but it might not capture the player who got it Tuesday, one day before the testing, out in the community.
“If they got it on a Monday or Tuesday, it’s not going to come up positive,” Frost said. “They’re still going to class Thursday, they’re going to class Friday morning, and if you have an away game, they’re going to be around bus drivers, flight attendants, hotel people preparing food. To think that testing is going to keep our kids safe is probably a very flawed way of looking at it. We’ve gotten to the point — not our decision, but advice from experts — that the ones we need to be worried about in regards to the age group of people we’re working with, young, healthy kids, is that we need to focus on kids who are symptomatic.”
Frost said the sport’s coaches and leaders may have to reach a point where they are comfortable with focusing on symptomatic players — fever spikes, trouble breathing — and treating them vs. trying to trace every asymptomatic case.
“If we don’t get there, where we’re able to just play football and take care of kids who are symptomatic — pull them, isolate them, isolate people in direct contact with them and let everybody else go — I think football’s unlikely,” Frost said.
Testing availability and execution will be key in college football’s return. Delays in results have already impacted workouts for multiple Major League Baseball teams this month, for example. Some universities must ship their samples hundreds of miles or use air travel. Tests cost roughly $100 per person.
“There are challenges around testing,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said this week on the “Paul Finebaum Show.” “The ability to have reliable, available and timely testing is at the top of the list. In order to facilitate what may come — the opportunity to play — that reality around testing is going to be very, very important. If I can’t have a vaccine, that testing ability is going to be critical to us moving forward.”
Other considerations that are a departure from typical practices of Nebraska and other schools:
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» Masking and employing social distancing during strength and conditioning sessions.
» In football, working in “functional units” of five to 10 members. These members would consistently work out and practice together and regularly train against another unit in practice. This would lessen the chance of an infection impacting an entire team.
» Face coverings or helmet shields during football practices.
» Traveling and playing games on the same day to avoid overnight stays.
» Universal masking for all coaches and personnel present at an athletic event.
» Schools sharing testing results and related safety assurances to opposing teams before the start of a contest. Further, a way of notifying schools should a player from one team test positive within 48 hours after competition with another team.
The recommendations were developed in collaboration with the NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Autonomy-5 Medical Advisory Group and multiple other groups along with research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.