MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Vaccinations to help prevent COVID-19 are a controversial topic for many – either pro or con – and as usual, athletics mirror society as a whole.
“I don’t think the NCAA will ever require it,” West Virginia University director of athletics Shane Lyons said of the vaccine. “From an institutional standpoint, I don’t think we believe that’s the right decision for us either. Getting the vaccine is a decision each individual has to make, and I don’t see us requiring it.
“That said, each individual has to take into account how their decision affects not only themselves but those around them,” added Lyons during an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. “We’re encouraging our student-athletes to get the vaccine. Some teams are doing better than others when it comes to those being vaccinated. We need to continue to educate everyone about the vaccine, so they can make a wise decision.”
Previous articles in this series with Shane Lyons
Even with the vaccine available throughout most of 2021, COVID continues to impact the world, and that includes athletics. This past June, the North Carolina State baseball team was removed from the College World Series during the semifinal round when a number of Wolfpack players tested positive for the coronavirus or were contract traced to those who did. The Major League Baseball season this summer has been impacted by COVID, and the Tokyo Olympics also saw many athletes who had to withdraw because of the coronavirus.
“I hated what happened to N.C. State in the College Baseball World Series, but that kind of goes into what can happen if a person or persons decide not to get the vaccine,” noted Lyons. “What does that do to their teammates? What can that do moving forward?”
West Virginia may not mandate vaccinations for its student-athletes, but those who choose not to be inoculated will face similar protocols that were in place last year.
“We’re not going to require the vaccine, but we’re going to continue to educate and encourage our individuals in that regard,” explained Lyons. “Our plan is to only test those non-vaccinated individuals. Those who have been vaccinated, we won’t test them unless they start to display some symptoms.
“The non-vaccinated people will also be subject to quarantines, just like before, if they test positive,” added WVU’s AD. “If they are around someone who is COVID positive, they will have a 14-day period of isolation.”
Last year, the Mountaineer athletic department conducted 36,000 coronavirus tests, said Lyons. Those who are vaccinated will not have to undergo such regular testing in the future.
“That’s our plan,” explained Lyons, who is a 1987 WVU graduate. “Hopefully, there is more education for our student-athletes. There is always concern with anything new, and the Johnson & Johnson scare added to that. But well below one percent of people who have been vaccinated have had reactions, though it did become national news and scared a lot of people when it came to the vaccine. When you look at the hundreds of millions of people who have been vaccinated, a vast majority has had little to no side effects. That’s the education we’re trying to provide to our student-athletes.”
Though COVID-19 is far from eradicated, the weekly average of new cases in the U.S. has dropped significantly since a national high of more than 210,000 last January, when there were also more than 4,000 daily deaths attributed to the coronavirus. Because of the decreases, those parts of society that were shuttered during the worst of the pandemic have re-opened. That includes full capacity for athletic events at West Virginia. However, the rise of new variants with greater transmitability is causing renewed concern in some quarters for those that have not been vaccinated.
“I do think we’ll be back to our old normal,” said Lyons, who is a native of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “The state has lifted the mandates on masks, and the vaccines have really helped the situation.”
Last season, the average attendance for West Virginia’s five home football games at Mountaineer Field was 6,853. The first two games of the 2020 campaign featured an average crowd of only 977, as entrance into the stadium was limited to family, friends and essential game workers. WVU increased attendance limits for West Virginia’s other three home games, allowing 25% of capacity at the 60,000-seat Mountaineer Field – so, 15,000 – though the average attendance for those contests was just 10,770 with the largest being 11,111 for TCU.
Lyons hopes things will be different in 2021.
“My question is what is public confidence going to be like,” he pondered. “I was in North Myrtle Beach this summer, and COVID certainly didn’t exist for the people there. That was a good sign, to me. Professional leagues are also back to full crowds.
“From our society and our community, you’re still going to have some who have reservations about coming back to a 60,000-seat venue with a capacity crowd,” he added. “I respect their concerns, but we’re going back to the 2019, pre-COVID protocols we had in place then. Obviously, things are subject to change. We know how things can change on a dime. If something happens, we’ll have to make adjustments, but if not, I’m looking forward to having 60,000 people back in Mountaineer Field.”
(This is part of a series of articles with Shane Lyons derived from his exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. Further stories covering a wide variety of topics will be published in the future.)
Previously In The Series