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Michael Arace: These days, we need an epidemiologist along with a plumber and a mechanic

Michael Arace
The Columbus Dispatch
Michael Arace

My old man used to say that life is easier when you have a plumber, a lawyer and a mechanic you can trust. In his case, he also needed a trainer, a nutritionist and a cardiologist – but, then, he came of age at a time when smoking was good for you, and Ted Williams sold cigarettes. 

In this time and place, we also need an epidemiologist. I have a personal favorite, Mark Cameron, a professor at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. His expertise is in cracking genomes of infectious diseases and developing vaccines. Presently, he’s working on COVID-19. 

In an interview Sept. 17, Cameron was cautiously optimistic about the details of the Big Ten’s plan to reopen its football season. He had five primary observations: 

One, the Big Ten’s plans were being vetted through a task force that includes chief infections control officers looking at both team- and population-level data. This is a recognition that football, even Big Ten football, is not an island.

Two, the Big Ten allowed itself a cushion of time that other power conferences did not. The caution was merited. The cushion was important. 

“We need time to assess whether we can properly end this second surge of cases in the face of Labor Day weekend, return to school and other campus activities, and the early impact of us returning indoors in the face of colder weather,” Cameron said as summer wound to a close.

Three, he said, “On top of daily medical testing, they (Big Ten) have devised one of the most objective and data-driven means of reacting to COVID-19 cases on the team or in the community that I’ve seen. They appear to be well aware that many return-to-play plans have uncovered or caused new infections. They will be watching the team and population positivity rates closely with their clear green, orange and red alert level consequences including practice and competition hard stops and timed assessments for improvement.” 

Four, the Big Ten is not allowing fans in the stands, only a limited number of coaches' and players' family members. This makes it easier to conform with guidelines and restrictions that vary from campus to campus. 

Five, we are, all of us, important to this plan. 

“Keep in mind that the Big Ten plan includes monitoring the positivity rate of the virus in the community in their decision-making process, so we must all do our part in ending our own orange and red alerts in our communities and, indeed, in all of Ohio,” Cameron said. 

Six weeks later, Ohio State kicked off with a 52-17 victory over Nebraska at The Shoe on Saturday. I am one who does grocery shopping during Ohio State games – no crowd at the Kroger – and I keep up with the radio broadcast. Man, it was good to hear Paul Keels’ voice again. Let us hope Big Daddy is not again paused. 

The second wave of coronavirus was worse than the first -- and the third wave is even worse than the second: Daily records for new cases of the virus in the U.S. were set Friday and Saturday. Ohio set state records for daily cases Friday and Saturday. 

More:Coronavirus updates: Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff tests positive; Maine city getting mailbox mask dispensers

I caught up with Cameron on Friday. He said, “Ohio’s test positivity rate is climbing, and it’s largely in 20- to 29-year-olds, lowering the median age of who’s infected as a result. But those infections will eventually reach us as parents, and then our parents or elderly contacts. That’s when this third surge will bulldoze us. That’s a concern being voiced, I see, by the mayors and health officials hosting Big Ten teams and (games).” 

More:Here’s why Big Ten mayors signed an open letter, asking the conference for help in fighting COVID-19 

We are finding out what happened in the wake of Labor Day, school openings, and so forth.

“All of this is intertwined,” Cameron said. “Cause-effect, then spread. Back to work, back to summer activities, back to school, back to campus, back to varsity and conference play. … My ongoing question with the Big Ten is, when will the red/red condition be met? It’s good that they included community positivity rate in their plan (>7.5%). And the combination of 5% in the team and 7.5% in the community (however that is defined) flags a red/red condition, stopping play for a week or indefinitely if things don’t improve.” 

The more cynical among us would say that, since the Big Ten season has gotten underway, there’s no way anybody is going to stop it – not even in a red/red situation. Hopefully, it does not come to that. Member schools are bent on vigilance, Ohio State included. 

More:Ohio State COVID-19 numbers remain low despite jumps around Ohio

“It’s becoming a very untenable and personal situation for us all as this hits closer and closer to home for more and more people,” Cameron said. “The third surge’s epidemiological curve is putting us in new territory at the worst time, as we all head back indoors and fire up the cold-and-flu season.” 

Wear a mask. Practice safe social distancing. Tailgate another day. 

marace@dispatch.com