Screenings before entrance into athletic facilities. Quarantine premises to replace traditional dormitories that house players. Isolation centers for those who test positive for COVID-19.
Those various measures are all being considered by the Big Ten’s task force for emerging infectious diseases.
Formed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the group convenes weekly teleconferences in an effort to establish a series of guidelines to present to Kevin Warren, the conference’s first-year commissioner.
Along with recommendations from the NCAA, they are expected to influence how college football teams might reopen facilities and return players to campus for workouts.
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Facilities have been shut down for two months, including the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at Ohio State, after moratoriums on organized team activities in all sports.
Steps toward a return have been mulled for much of the spring.
Before the cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the college sports governing body looked at staging a modified March Madness.
Dr. Brian Hainline, its chief medical officer, mentioned one proposal for an event with only four teams, intending to reduce the required travel and participants involved, before it was scuttled.
“We couldn’t even pull that off with testing,” Hainline said in an interview with The Dispatch last week.
Not only was testing availability limited, Hainline said, but the turnaround time was slow. It was going to take 72 hours for results, preventing officials from knowing whether players were infected with the contagious respiratory illness on the day of games or practices.
Medical experts believe frequent testing is a critical component as leagues look to establish health and safety protocols concerning the coronavirus.
“I think that any organization with these plans to get back to normalcy has got to be testing for the virus itself,” said Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious disease researcher at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, noting that other methods are unable to detect the virus in people who are asymptomatic.
Several weeks remain, though, until the earliest point at which college football teams could reopen their facilities for workouts, leaving uncertainty over the specifics or scale of a potential testing program.
“We know we’re going to have to do testing,” Hainline said, “but the type of testing remains to be defined.”
Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the associate vice chancellor for clinical research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who chairs the Big Ten’s task force, envisions “a multipronged approach” to accompany testing, including frequent temperature checks and monitoring for symptoms of players and personnel.
“We often talk about it being a slice of Swiss cheese,” Kratochvil said. “There's a lot of holes in it. But the more layers you get of the Swiss cheese, the more holes you cover up. That's really what we're doing. We're trying to mitigate these risks of coronavirus as we're trying to manage it before we have a vaccine that will hopefully address many of these issues.”
Enough questions surround prospective safety measures that Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for athletes, said he was uncomfortable if rapid testing was not included as a required protocol.
“That's one less layer of a safeguard for the players,” he said. “It becomes more discretional and there's more leeway for coaches to assert their authority. Everything falls into a more gray area. The more gray there is, the more problems there are in college athletics for health and safety.”
Huma envisions a worrisome scenario when a team’s star quarterback registers a fever on the morning of a practice or game.
Without a quick turnaround time for COVID-19 test results, would he held be out of competition as a precaution or be allowed to suit up?
Previous situations make Huma believe it would be the latter. He pointed to an instance from the Big Ten’s men’s basketball tournament in March when Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg showed flu and cold symptoms while sitting on the bench during the Cornhuskers’ first-round loss.
“He was out there on the court with his players, in the locker room and really exposing people,” Huma said. “Fortunately, it was not coronavirus.”
Hoiberg had influenza. Yet the diagnosis was not made until after the game.
For that reason, Huma believes an independent third party, potentially a collection of local public health officials, should be charged with screening players and conduct testing rather than the school’s medical staff.
Even with testing, additional health and safety precautions are likely to be in place once players enter facilities.
Kratochvil mentioned ideas such as an increased availability of hand sanitizer and the decontamination of weight-lifting equipment during workouts. Coaches could wear masks, too.
Other changes in behavior might follow.
Training rooms, long serving as common gathering places for players to chitchat while seeking treatment, could require admittance by appointment only.
“There’s going to be an exponential increase in what it means to do things in a sanitary way,” Hainline said.
The restart of workouts is likely to begin in smaller groups, possibly sorted by position, rather than large-scale practices that invite more than 100 people, including players, coaches and other staff members.
As part of nine "core principles" established the NCAA's COVID-19 Advisory Panel, the guidelines call for an initial phase of social distancing and gatherings that are limited to 10 or fewer people.
But players’ lives on college campuses extend beyond the football facility.
That includes residences, either dormitories or nearby apartments, that put them in close quarters with other groups of people.
Players could carry a higher risk of exposure due to contact from their sport. So could their roommates.
As a way to isolate higher-risk groups, Kratochvil said the Big Ten’s task force was looking at establishing quarantine facilities.
Similar ones could be set up if players test positive for COVID-19.
“It's going to have to be a community approach to how we do this,” Kratochvil said, “because if you don't have safe practices in the community, it places everyone at risk.”