Concerns over further COVID-19 spread led Ohio State to cancel football game at Illinois

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, sits empty on Saturday morning after the game between Ohio State and Illinois was canceled because of COVD-19 cases among the Buckeyes.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Saturday that the rate of positive coronavirus tests within the football program had reached a “concerning level,” prompting the decision to cancel the weekend's game at Illinois.

OSU’s rate had not crossed the Big Ten’s positivity threshold requiring that a game be called off or for a weeklong shutdown of organized team activities, but Smith said the steps were taken late Friday as a precautionary measure.

“Could we have played? Sure,” Smith said on a Zoom call with reporters. “Was it the right thing to play? No.”

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Smith and other administrators at Ohio State are hopeful a pause of activities can limit further spread of COVID-19 among players, coaches and other staff members in the following days and provide a potential pathway to play next week at Michigan State.

While off to a 4-0 start and in first place in the conference’s East Division, the Buckeyes would be ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game if another one of their remaining regular-season games is canceled, leaving them without the minimum six games to qualify.

Until this week, the team had “essentially no cases” of the virus, according to Dr. Jim Borchers, the team's head physician.

But that changed midweek when the Buckeyes saw a spike in cases that ultimately included coach Ryan Day, who will isolate until Dec. 7 in accordance with league protocols and with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Big Ten programs are required to suspend all organized football activities, including practices and games, if both their test positivity rate exceeds 5% and if their population positivity rate surpasses 7.5%. The Buckeyes were above only one.

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Ohio State’s population positivity rate crossed the 7.5% threshold on Friday following a round of polymerase chain reaction testing, but had not gone above the 5% test threshold, which factors the number of positive tests divided by total tests administered. The population metric includes 170 people involved in the program and is a percentage of the positive individuals. Both are based on a seven-day rolling average.

The school did not provide specific percentages concerning its positivity rates, nor specify those who have tested positive, other than Day.

None of the teams in the conference has exceeded both thresholds that require a game’s cancellation this season, Smith said.

“We’re making a decision not just on the threshold,” Smith said, “but a decision based upon what we're seeing. In our particular case, it's kind of a community type of spread. We didn't see spikes in specific areas.”

Coronavirus cases have surged around Columbus in recent weeks, prompting Franklin County to turn “purple,” the highest of the color designations assigned to counties by the state, indicating “severe exposure and spread.”

As the spread of the virus reached Ohio State this week, the team adjusted its preparations for Illinois. Meetings were held virtually, then practices were scaled back on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Players didn’t wear helmets, but facial coverings during workouts. There was limited contact, and no tackling.

“We didn't actually practice physically,” Day said. “It was practice on paper. But we weren't running and sweating and all those things because we had to keep our masks on the entire time. We didn’t go body against body.”

Borchers, who also chaired the Big Ten’s medical subcommittee in the lead-up to this pandemic-altered season, said the team had been vigilant when cases first emerged, but it wasn’t until Friday when they felt they needed to hit pause.

Right up until the cancellation, the team had been planning to leave on a chartered flight for Champaign on Saturday morning in time for a scheduled noon kickoff.

“Unfortunately, this wasn't a decision we could make early in the week,” Borchers said.

The medical staff has implemented contact tracing in order to identify individuals who have been in close contact with positive members of the program. They will be quarantined and receive enhanced testing. But no cluster or pattern to the positive cases have been identified.

Borchers said those who have previously tested positive are all recovering and doing well.

“No one's required significant medical treatment,” he added. “And we have every intention of providing them with what they need. But we have every expectation that they will recover and continue to do well and hopefully be able to return not only to athletics, but to the other responsibilities they have in their daily lives as quickly as possible.”

A resumption of activities in the following days remains up in the air, and there is no time frame for a return. The trend of positive cases will influence any potential restart.

“The approval process is us,” Smith said. “It's not like we got to get approval from the Big Ten or anyone else. It's us. So what we have to do is watch our environment. Certainly got to watch to see that we don't have a continued spike in the positivity rate. But we'll collaborate and make a decision.”