As coronavirus cases surge across the country, nearly a dozen top-level college football programs have suspended voluntary workouts.


Ohio State became the latest Wednesday night when it announced it had halted workouts after multiple athletes tested positive for COVID-19.


The decision affects seven varsity sports, including football, that had returned to on-campus facilities last month.


So far, the Buckeyes are believed to be an outlier in the Big Ten. Among the 14 schools in the conference, they are the first to shut down workouts due to an outbreak.


Most programs affected by the pandemic are based in other regions, according to Scott Jedilicka, an assistant professor for sports management at Washington State University who monitors coronavirus data related to college football at covidcfb.com.


"It conforms with the narrative that we’re seeing nationwide, which is that in the Northeast and most of the upper Midwest things look OK," Jedilicka said. "We see relatively low case spread. But everywhere else — the South, the West, things are ramping up pretty quickly."


Some of the football programs to pause workouts in recent weeks include Arizona, Houston and North Carolina, teams residing in Sun Belt states that have seen spikes in coronavirus cases.


Most states with Big Ten schools, stretching from New Jersey in the east to Nebraska in the west, have seen smaller increases, likely enabling most workouts to continue.


"The less virus you have in your community, the easier it is to bring sports back, and that includes college sports," said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University.


Local coronavirus case numbers are likely to have a notable effect on a college football team.


Unlike professional leagues that are aiming to restart at "bubble sites" — centralized locations to house players, coaches and other essential personnel — college athletes live on campuses in close proximity to other students or residents.


"It is likely that college, high school and youth sports will somewhat mirror the viral burden in their communities," Binney said. "Pro leagues, you would hope, would be somewhat divorced from that, particularly if they’re setting up a bubble."


Social life also plays a role. When at least 30 LSU players were in quarantine last month due to possible exposure to COVID-19, media outlets reported that a nearby nightclub was the source of the outbreak.


Jedilicka has considered the Big Ten to be the conference best positioned to resume team activities and meet criteria established by the NCAA in May regarding the "resocialization" of college sports.


The recommendations from the college sports governing body included 14-day declines in local COVID-19 cases and percentage of positive tests, as well as hospital capacity.


Using those standards, Jedilicka assigned letters grades to schools, with 10 of the 14 schools in the conference receiving either an A or B.


Ohio State, along with Indiana and Iowa, received a C in the latest update Thursday. Wisconsin had a D.


"Once you meet those minimum criteria," Jedilicka said, "then it becomes a question of well, do you have the protocols in place to try to control the environment to the extent that you can keep athletes safe?"


The state of Ohio reported 1,122 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.


An exact number of positive tests among Ohio State athletes is not yet known. School officials have declined to provide specifics concerning the number of positive tests among its athletes, though the number is not believed to be as significant as figures disclosed by other schools.


Last month, Clemson confirmed 37 of its football players had tested positive for the coronavirus, nearly one-third of its roster.


Citing privacy laws, OSU has not disclosed its testing results, noting it could "lead to the identification of specific individuals."


But even if its numbers are less significant, Binney thought schools were well served to put workouts on pause with single-digit cases.


"I would start being worried at four to five in a short period of time," Binney said. "While four to five cases seem manageable, if you’re not testing regularly, like every day or every other day at best, those cases you’ve identified had time to spread and are probably going to turn into 10 or 15 or 20 if you don’t act quickly.


"So you have to get ahead of this thing. When you’re testing, you’re often finding infections that occurred five, six, seven days ago. You’re already behind the eight ball when you find somebody who is positive. That’s why you have to act quickly when you detect even a relatively small number of cases."


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman