Specter of coronavirus looms as Big Ten prepares to begin football season

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Along with coaching football, Ohio State coach Ryan Day also spends a good part of his day reminding his players about remaining safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan Day cautions all of his players before they leave the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

They should wear masks, keep socially distant in public and be mindful of other people, he tells them. Everyone around Ohio State’s football team is tested daily for COVID-19, but outside the limits of their facility, unknowns lie.

“Each person that you come in contact with, you just have to assume they have the virus,” Day said. “That’s the only way I can really talk to the guys to help them understand how important it is.”

The Buckeyes’ coach described the guarded approach last week while speaking on his radio show. It was one day after a coronavirus outbreak at Florida led to the postponement of the Gators’ game Saturday against Louisiana State, the latest reminder of the fragility of a football season played amid a pandemic.

At least 32 games in Football Bowl Subdivision have been rescheduled or canceled since late August due to the virus, according to a recent tally from the Associated Press.

As the Big Ten opens its season this week with a slate of seven games, including Ohio State’s opener against Nebraska on Saturday, it is possible a similar uneven road awaits.

“You have to prepare that the season will be disjointed and characterized by games being postponed and canceled,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who has advised the NCAA on COVID-19. “There's really no way around that.”

Adalja offered his warning a couple of weeks ago, noting the U.S. was then reporting between 40,000 and 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day and that college football teams are not sequestered in bubbles like some professional sports leagues, potentially shielding them. New infections nationwide have since risen sharply, approaching 70,000 late last week, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project.

The trend points to the likelihood of greater community transmission of the virus across the country, especially in the Big Ten, which has seen several states in its geographic footprint reporting some of the biggest increases. Ohio also reported record levels last week.

In order to play in the weeks ahead, teams must limit cases. If their positivity rate surpasses 5%, they are required to suspend practice and competition for at least seven days. It’s a strict level to maintain, only taking a few positive tests to derail gameday.

“That threshold can get exceeded pretty easily,” Adalja said.

Leaguewide testing protocols are seen as valuable in preventing potential outbreaks and could limit the disruption. Ohio State and all other conference teams are testing their players, coaches and staff members each day.

“It does provide you some sense of assurance that you can catch these cases quickly,” Adalja said.

Using rapid antigen tests, which are provided by the Big Ten through a partnership with Quidel Corporation, the Buckeyes test about 170 people daily within their program, screening them each morning in a training room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.  

“It looks like a large clinic, and for a couple hours, that’s what it is,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, the Buckeyes’ team physician who also co-chaired the Big Ten's return to play task force.

The benefits in the use of antigen tests come from speed. Results arrive in 15 minutes, and tests don’t have to be sent to labs for processing.

But such tests are considered less sensitive than polymerase chain reaction tests, according to the latest testing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising the possibility for positive players to instead test negative.

Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious disease researcher at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, referred to the lower sensitivity as the Achilles' heel of the Big Ten’s testing program. False negatives would put teams at risk because players not known to be carrying the virus during the early days of infection can spread it among teammates.

“It could take a few days for those tests to show up properly positive and confirmed,” Cameron said. “By then, you've lost a handle on how many people were infected, and you're going to get extra cases, simply because you couldn't find out fast enough, or reliably enough, that you had an infected team.”

The risks of transmission are still the greatest outside of team facilities, where the public is tested far less often. Players attend classes, run errands or might be tempted to socialize with friends and family members.

“It's hard to be isolated from the community,” Cameron said. “People will continue to be in contact with a variety of others.”

Outside a bubble, teams also must travel for games. Transit requires them to congregate on buses and planes, in hotel lobbies and smaller visiting locker rooms, raising the possibility of exposure to more people who assist with travel. Borchers said the Buckeyes likely will eat meals and hold team meetings in smaller groups while on the road, among taking other preventive measures.

It was important, he said, to avoid “interacting with people that are not part of your congregate group.”

The outbreak at Florida, which saw 19 players test positive, occurred days after they traveled for a game at Texas A&M.

The prevalence of the virus leaves a minefield for them to navigate this fall, a reason that teams urge their players and staff to exercise caution. Proper conduct remains paramount.

“I still think it's going to be the behaviors of the individuals inside the protocol that will dictate the success of the protocol,” Borchers said. “It's not the protocol itself. ...

“What the protocol reflects is those behaviors in general. It doesn't mean that we expect that we aren't going to see some cases. But it does mean that we have to be even more vigilant with cases arising in certain areas, and it reinforces what the behaviors have to be if this is to be successful.”