Facts, medical advice have changed on COVID-19, Big Ten says, altering calculation on fall football

Joey Kaufman
An Ohio State Buckeyes football staff member leaves voluntary workouts on Monday, June 8, 2020 at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus, Ohio. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, players are socially distanced during workouts and only arrive and leave in small groups.

In August, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro held significant reservations about playing a college football season amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“The medical advice said there was almost, virtually no chance that we could do it safely,” Schapiro said.

Insufficient testing capacities, along with other health and safety considerations, prompted him to join 10 other Big Ten university presidents and chancellors in voting to call off games until 2021.

Reversing course five weeks later and reviving this year’s football season as part of a unanimous vote, Schapiro invoked an expression uttered by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday.

“The facts change, our minds change,” Schapiro said.

Schapiro, the chairman of the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors, contended that advancements in testing for COVID-19 was one of the most consequential steps made toward reviving the season.

No later than Sept. 30, the conference will provide all teams with access to daily antigen testing as they ramp up toward starting a nine-game season on the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

It mirrors the setup in the NFL, along with other professional sports leagues, that tests players and coaches on a daily basis.

But such frequent testing has been largely absent within college athletics, including in the most prominent and wealthiest conferences. The Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences, which are all playing this fall, require testing three times per week. Before the new protocols were announced on Wednesday, the Big Ten required only twice-weekly testing.

The Pac-12 also announced a daily rapid testing program this month, though the league that canceled its season on the same day the Big Ten did is not expected to return to play until later in 2020 or early next year.

Now in the Big Ten, players, coaches, trainers and other critical personnel who are on the field for practices and games must be cleared before any football activities.

The frequency is aimed at better allowing medical staffs to more quickly identify and isolate potentially positive cases on a team and reduce the need for contact tracing.

“I do believe we will have clean playing fields, no athletes on those fields that have COVID,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said.

The provider of the daily tests was not announced by the Big Ten, which is to cover the costs of testing. If a player tests positive for COVID-19, they are unable play in a game for at least 21 days and will be subject to further medical monitoring.

That includes a comprehensive cardiac screening and testing for myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that may be triggered by COVID-19 and other viruses. Players will receive cardiac MRIs as part of the evaluation, considered the most sensitive test, according to Dr. Curt Daniels, an Ohio State cardiologist who co-authored a recent study on the heart condition.

Players who test positive for COVID also will need to be cleared by a cardiologist before returning to play. The results will be logged in a cardiac registry by the conference, with the data used as part of an “attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes,” as outlined in its news release.

The protocols were more stringent than those that were in place when the Big Ten first considered returning in early September, before the postponement.

Dr. Jim Borchers, the head team physician for Ohio State who co-chaired a medical subcommittee for the conference, considered the standards to be critical hurdles that were cleared and allowed them to move forward with a season.

“In medicine, very often when things are unclear, we pause, we become collegial, we discuss,” Borchers said. “We’re driven for a path forward and are driven to look at the evidence. I think all of us have done that and, and we’ve ended up in a place where we feel comfortable, that we have a path forward that’s going to emphasize that health and safety.”

Part of the new measures included clear benchmarks for instituting a stoppage in a season.

Teams that have a positive rate above 5% will be required to pause practices and games for at least seven days. If the positivity rate is between 2% and 5%, teams will be asked to exercise caution and consider implementing enhanced COVID-19 precautions.

In order to follow the guidelines and assist with decisions, each school will have a chief infection officer.