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Breaking down the Power Five COVID-19 protocol

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Don’t get sick.

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the college football season rapidly approaching and no end of the coronavirus pandemic in sight, the Power Five conferences — ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 —banded together to produce a list of standards for COVID-19 testing and response protocols. Sports Illustrated acquired a draft of the requirements, and Ross Dellenger provided some insight into its contents. Although the final document has not been released, here’s a look at what Northwestern and other high-major schools will be required to do in order to keep their athletes safe and make seasons happen.

High Risk vs. Intermediate/Low Risk

Of the sports Northwestern sponsors, the Power Five protocol treats football, basketball, soccer, wrestling, field hockey, volleyball and lacrosse as high risk. Student-athletes playing those sports will be tested within 72 hours of the first game each week. Athletes playing non-high risk sports can be tested “at a less frequent interval,” although that timetable is not specified in the document.

Referees for both football and basketball will also be tested weekly. Coaches do not require tests but must wear a mask while on the sidelines if they are not tested as the athletes are.

Isolation Periods

There are two different isolation requirements in the plan. Athletes who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for a minimum of 10 days after receiving a positive test result or from their onset of symptoms. In order to be released from isolation, the player must go at least three days without fever and improvement of respiratory symptoms.

If an athlete tests positive, any person found to have had “high risk” contact with that athlete will be required to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. “High risk” contact is defined as anyone who spends more than 15 minutes within six feet of a confirmed infected person while not wearing a mask, notably including both face-to-face and contact drills. While in isolation, athletes are not allowed to compete, and even if they test negative they must remain in isolation for the full 14 days. This is one rule that could take out a bunch of players.

Cancellations

The plan gives several conditions that could result in a school canceling games or entire seasons. The season or individual games could be canceled if:

  1. The school cannot isolate athletes who have tested positive or quarantine people with “high-risk” contact on campus.
  2. The school cannot provide weekly testing.
  3. The campus or surrounding community is deemed unsafe by public health officials.
  4. The school cannot provide adequate contact tracing.
  5. Public health officials believe the strain an outbreak would put on hospitals is too high.

What all this really means

It’s important to remember that this plan is only a draft, and we’re working with incomplete information. However, a few things immediately jumped out as things I would change in a future revision.

First, not requiring coaches to be tested seems foolish. The protocol allows schools to frequently expose the athletes to coaches who may not have been tested for COVID-19, despite repeated testing being the method chosen to help prevent more infections. While requiring a mask is a good minimum, including coaches in the testing requirements seems like an easy way to improve safety. Moreover, coaches may be at a higher risk for serious illness since they are older. While Fitz is one of the younger head coaches in the Power Five, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is in his seventies.

Second, the isolation protocols could use reworking. The requirements for ending isolation does not fully consider cases in which the athlete does not show symptoms, and the 14-day quarantine period for people who have had “high risk” contact with someone who has tested positive mandates the entire period be maintained, even after a negative test. Because of the definitions of “high risk” contact, there’s a huge chance that one infected athlete going to practice could result in a quarantine period for a significant portion of team.

Third, when the plan mentions isolation and quarantine periods, it states that these periods must have no competition. Presumably, this means no games AND no practice, but deliberately having that spelled out is a simple fix that would close a potential loophole and lead to healthier players.

Group of Five conferences and the NCAA are expected to release their own guidelines soon, per the article, but since there is so little centralization to college sports and schools are equipped with varying levels of resources, it’s unreasonable to expect schools with vastly different environments to follow the same protocols.

Dellenger also emphasized the primary concerns Power Five conference officials have recently articulated as potential season-stoppers: campus or surrounding community has an unsafe positive test rate as deemed by local public health officials and the inability of local health care systems to withstand a surge in COVID-19 cases.

No matter the extent of the testing requirements, the protocol is a step towards enabling college sports this coming academic year, which is something we can all look forward to.