Contact Tracing, Testing Stand As Building Blocks For Football Return

COVID-19

Contact Tracing, Testing Stand As Building Blocks For Football Return


West Virginia director of athletics and NCAA chair of the Football Oversight Committee Shane Lyons and NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline reiterated many familiar talking points with journalist Andy Katz on the hopes for a return of collegiate sports, especially football, in a recent online meetup. Included, though, were some thoughts and talking points that covered a bit of new ground.

One of those was forwarded by Hainline, who emphasized several times that his statements were relative to “where we are today.”

“If a player tests positive, right now, that player is going to have to be quarantined for 14 days,” the chief medical officer said. “Then you are going to have to look at all the close contacts, and you are going to have to make decisions. If the decision is that all the close contacts are going to have to be quarantined for 14 days, then that’s going to be difficult. If the testing is such that you can monitor every one, three or five days, you can start to imagine scenarios where you don’t have to shut everything down for two weeks at a time.”

That follows the thinking, posted here recently, that testing is the true foundational piece that has to be improved dramatically and implemented before anything else can occur on the return to sports journey. Hainline agreed with that point, and added another that he views as crucial.

“One is that you have exceptional surveillance and contact tracing available, and the other is that you have testing. Right now, you would say if you are going to have a football game, you are going to say that everyone is going to be tested, and all the people in the ‘inner bubble’ are going to be tested. Very good testing is going to be a very necessary part of this.

“Where we are today, there’s a whole new revolution of tests,” he observed. “We are measuring how good are those tests. Some are serology (blood) some are saliva. But those aren’t really perfected yet. We are expecting the testing to change even more over the next 30-60 days.”

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The next month of the process is going to be crucial. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, along with Lyons, notes that every bit of additional information that can be learned in that period is important in making final decisions about the restart of sports. Hainline is also in agreement with that view, and cautions that what is “known” now might change in the future.

“I don’t think we can rush to judgment,” Lyons noted. “We still have about 115 days until the start of football. Let’s focus on the return to practice, return to play. What does that look like? We’ve had some time to talk about different models, with six weeks being optimal and four weeks being the minimum that we believe prior to the first contest.”

Hainline also discussed the current level of knowledge about COVID-19.

“What we know about the virus right now is that it’s not transmitted by sweat,”” Hainline detailed. “It’s a respiratory droplet virus. But there is a component of it, especially where you have people breathing really hard and lying on top of each other that is the aerosol component. It can be in the air, not just in the heavy droplet form. Then there’s the aspect that you are touching your nose or your mouth and it goes on someone else or on an inanimate object, and it’s shared that way too.”

With that as background, he shared the idea that sharing equipment, down to footballs, is part of a staggered reintegration process.

“We noted that in phases one and two (of the NCAA’s return to action guidelines), as you are just getting people together we recommend that shared balls not be part of those phases. There’s a possibility it could be transported by a shared ball. That’s why we have to take it that extra level where the testing is so critical.”

That is just one of the many details that still remain to be hammered out.

“We haven’t gotten down to the granular part, but maybe we are going to encourage coaches to wear the masks,” Lyons added. “Maybe officials, that could be a part of the game. I don’t kow if you’ve all seen the picture of the Georgia Tech game in 1918, where everyone is wearing the masks. They always say history repeats itself – well, that may be what the 2020 football season looks like.”

Fans at a Georgia Tech football game during the 1918 influenza pandemic

First have to get it right for the ‘inner bubble’, said Hainline, who is also advising the US Tennis Association on its plans for the US Open. “The inner bubble are players and those in immediate contact with them. Then there is the outer bubble of those required to run the event. Once you perfect the core foundation of this, it’s easier to imagine including fans. Not 100,000, but  maybe to start building on that.”

At WVU, similar planning is underway for contests that Lyons hopes will begin on schedule.

“We have groups within the conference and event management staff to start looking at that. I don’t think we’re going to have the 60,000 we had last year,” he admitted. “You’re looking at ingress, egress, tailgating, once you are in the stadium setting people apart. Your concession stand line. Do you have certain times for certain people to come in the gate so there’s more separation?”

As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, the further out projections get, the murkier they are. Hainline is sure of one item, however.

“This isn’t going to magically mutate out or disappear in the near future,” Hainline said. “we never got a vaccine for SARS or AIDS. A vaccine for this we are probably pusing well into 2021. That takes time to develop.”

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College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was also on the call, and spent his initial time explaining away his April statement about the unlikelihood of playing games this fall.

“I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football,” he said at the time.

He backtracked massively on that statement during this call, claiming to be merely “thinking out loud,” during the interview in which he made the comments.

“What do I know?” he asked, perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not.