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LINCOLN — Of the many roles being played by Nebraska athletics’ performance nutrition staff in the past two weeks — as NU transitioned from its much-beloved buffet to a grab-and-go service — the director of the operation, Dave Ellis, left one of the toughest and most personal roles for himself.
In the throes of a worldwide pandemic, he’s the medical clearinghouse for his staff. Anyone working on the line to feed the Huskers can voluntarily answer a personal health questionnaire, have their temperature taken and even, if they so wish, have their urine analyzed for biomarkers that might indicate they’re close to getting sick.
Is speculating about a college football season in the face of the still-spreading coronavirus a useful exercise? That question cuts to the heart of it, and it’s legitimate to say no.
“It’s certainly voluntary for them, but they seem to be good with it,” Ellis said of the urinalysis. NU’s director of performance nutrition can’t afford to let any situation get past him or his assistant director, Lisa Kopecky. He looks his workers in the eye. Do you feel healthy?
“One symptomatic person could come in and put everybody into a two-week quarantine mode, and that would be the end of our ability to feed our student-athletes,” Ellis said.
Ellis is part of nutrition groups and aware of enough training table operations to know a lot of schools — including some in the Big Ten — aren’t doing much for their student-athletes now, except, perhaps, parceling up some non-perishable food to send in the mail. Nebraska’s doing much more than that with an operation that has served between 100 and 200 student-athletes each day.
And now that spring break is over — and some athletes are returning to Lincoln to finish classes online — the number of people served should climb. Ellis expects his team can handle it.
He’s been monitoring the coronavirus over the health wire for some time. Ellis started studying responses in larger markets — Seattle, San Francisco — to get a sense of best practices for a Midwestern school currently far away from an epicenter of COVID-19 spread. Training he received three years ago through Major League Baseball that allowed him to become what the Food Safety Modernization Act calls a Preventive Controls Qualified Individual came in handy in working around a pandemic, not to mention driving home the best practices needed to manage nutrition for athletes tested often for drugs.
Well before the curbside service started in mid-March, Ellis had players and staff members wearing gloves as they selected food on the buffet. Serving utensils were swapped out “frequently.”
Nebraska “pulled the plug” on the buffet March 11 and split the training table clientele in half. Student-athletes got the curbside service, while coaches and staff — while they were still operational — got their food in the hallway.
Ellis uses two teams of 25 workers each — he normally has more than 100 — to work three-day-on, three-day-off shifts. Athletes use an app to order their food one day ahead of time so workers know how much to prepare. Meals come prepackaged.
“There is a regular size and a ‘holy smokes here comes a football player’ size,” Ellis said. “The appetites on these guys — even when they’re idling along — are pretty significant. If it’s a heavyweight wrestler, shot putter or football player, we can pull the appropriate meal.”
Nebraska wants athletes avoiding the store if they can, so there are toiletries available, too. NU also created “sick day” packages with canned soup, applesauce and other items. Workers wear gloves and masks when they deliver the food through car windows, and athletes are asked to wipe down their car interiors and cellphones daily, as well. Food pickup usually lasts, Ellis said, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. With more athletes coming back to campus, it’s likely Nebraska will have to extend its hours.
If athletes become symptomatic for COVID-19, a teammate is asked to pick up their food. And performance nutrition staff members — some of whom are students themselves — are asked to be especially vigilant to their surroundings.
“If you’re a college student — one of our dedicated workers — and you go home at night, you can self-isolate, but if your roommate’s a trainwreck, you have a problem,” Ellis said. “If they’re coming home from spring break from a real vulnerable destination — through a real vulnerable airport — those are the wild cards college towns have ahead of them. We’ll have vulnerability for a spike.”
Ellis has studied the situation closely and believes — like many of the state’s medical experts and political officeholders — that the virus’ spread could “get worse before it gets better.” With athletes returning to the city — whether it’s campus dorms or other housing in town — Ellis’ job only gets more complex.
“It’s a process that’s so fluid that I haven’t had an hour or two to get away from it — other than when I shut my eyes at night,” Ellis said. “Between the public health considerations that we have to be monitoring, the best practices that are evolving nationally and regionally, the nature of our student-athlete and staff counts changing, and the very steep learning curve we’ve had in becoming a curbside situation, it’s a roulette wheel that keeps on spinning.”