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Big Ten will be a case study for a new COVID society

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After the conference went through its own lockdown, it emerged with a plan. America should watch closely.

Michigan v Maryland Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Hope isn’t a plan. The Big Ten learned that the hard way in the days leading up to and the 36 days following the postponement of the 2020 fall sports season.

America is still learning with difficulty, or in some places not learning at all.

The country’s richest collegiate sports conference is now back with a plan which it looks ready to execute. Hearing from its medical advisory board, the B1G decided reliable rapid antigen testing technology was available enough for each of its 14 schools to procure a daily supply for its fall athletes. The presidents were then comforted enough by Ohio State head team physician Dr. Jim Borchers on the issue of myocarditis when he presented a path to safely returning to play through comprehensive cardiac testing.

No conference has taken more heat since the beginning of August (some might even say July) than the Big Ten. Leadership was always more publicly cautious on the prospects of a season than that of other leagues, but it assumed everyone would follow once one Power Five conference pulled the plug. Except that didn’t happen, and other leagues were able to dodge criticism about subpar safety protocols by hiding behind the ferocious #WeWantToPlay movement led by players, coaches and athletic directors across the country.

As other teams trudged on and things seemingly hadn’t fallen off the tracks — we now know some teams have had a substantial number of cases, but few are currently active — many viewed the Big Ten’s decision to postpone as rushed and premature, especially when its messaging largely consisted of talk of unknowns and less about data points. Why not just do what the SEC did and push the season back to the end of September?

I felt that at the time, the Big Ten was right to postpone the fall sports season. And now, over a month later, I think the conference made the correct call in bringing it back. Yes, I’m aware it’s hard to find someone who will publicly admit they agree with the conference that’s been the subject of countless protests and even a lawsuit this summer.

But now the conference is back with more knowns and more data points. And it has the potential to provide a blueprint if not general guidelines for areas of our society looking to reopen.

The Big Ten plans to make this season happen by testing everyone who walks into the facility everyday with rapid antigen tests. These tests aren’t uncomfortable swabs that go all the way up the nose, and results don’t take days. They aren’t as sensitive (catch as many infections) as gold-standard PCR tests, but they shouldn’t be viewed as the same. In fact, some argue PCR tests aren’t the right kind of tests for daily asymptomatic screenings, since many positive results may be too sensitive.

Antigen tests are infectiousness tests. When you test people every day and get results in 15 minutes, it becomes easy to weed out cases before they have a chance to spread it to others. Borchers said they’re likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to nearly 100 percent.

“Antigen testing detects certain proteins in the virus and can actually detect a level of virus that is thought to be the below the level of infectivity,” said Northwestern head team physician Dr. Jeff Mjaanes. “You’re basically catching a positive before it’s contagious. That’s a huge breakthrough. We can identify people before they are infectious, maintaining the health and sanctity of the team.”

The plan still requires players to act carefully outside the facility, but it is basically saying players have a very, very low chance of spreading or contracting the virus during team activities. The debate about playing football should be framed as “is playing football less safe than not playing,” and in this case there is hardly an added risk in playing football since with the new level of testing, players are some of the safest people anywhere.

These words seem to have to a strong connotation since they are often misconstrued to be taken as binary or black-and-white, but we have to learn how to live with the virus. By this, I do not mean we should act as if the virus is harmless or go about our life as it was pre-COVID. That would be reckless and irresponsible.

I mean we must develop innovative solutions so we can safely regain aspects of our life, bit by bit. For (some) college football teams this has meant daily antigen testing, a rethinking of operations and comprehensive post-recovery screenings to look for any cardiac abnormalities. For schools, offices and other buildings it may mean more frequent, rapid testing as well as upgrading ventilation so air is filtered out more often, among other things.

The conference is now getting hammered for its safety protocols because of the resources it requires. We must realize the necessary investment in creating solutions. Is it frustrating that schools across the country aren’t reopened and these tests have taken way too long to even be recognized despite existing in the spring? Yes. 110 percent.

But don’t pin your anger on the Big Ten for the reason people can’t get tests or the reason people are missing out on key elements of their lives. Blame every level of government and the countless failed responses for that. If the conference had taken up President Trump on his offer to supply rapid tests from the national stockpile, then I’d have an issue. But Big Ten schools are working with private labs, and Mjaanes made clear one reason they felt comfortable with this plan is they won’t be affecting any state or local testing capacity. It isn’t even affecting campus testing capacity, where I am getting tested at least weekly and my latest results came back in less than 24 hours.

In fact, if the B1G is able to complete a football season with few infections, the perception of these tests, which varies from game-changer to false hope, may greatly change and lead to wider acceptance from other areas of society.

In being confident with its new plan, made possible by rapid testing developments, the Big Ten is following an approach the country should at least attempt to emulate. When for the longest time the conference’s primary strategy was praying the virus away, it finally realized it needed to pause and go into its own lockdown.

Then, during that lockdown, leaders allowed science to find a way to get back to playing. They understood the need to be willing to accept new information and be open to changing their minds even after they completely botched the postponement process and messaging. Trusting science doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t do things, but that we must adapt the ways in which we do them. Unfortunately, with the way science has been disregarded and attacked, it has been made out to mean that the only way to “trust science” is to not leave your home until we have a vaccine.

Other conferences playing football may look like America in the current coronavirus era. They’ve put in place some protocols and may complete the season, but not without far more bumps and bruises along the way. On December 20, look at the Big Ten, and see how its season has gone.

I had hesitations about watching a football season under the prior protocol. Now, I see the Big Ten is throwing the kitchen sink at the virus and giving a season every chance to work. Instead of seeing the problems as insurmountable barriers, they looked at each obstacle as checkpoints to address on the path to playing safely. I argued awhile ago that the Big Ten should delay its season until it had rapid testing in place. Ultimately that’s how things look to have ended up.

Don’t get mad at the Big Ten for doing what America should have done and should still be pursuing. Instead, let it lead the way.