The NCAA Has Released Covid-19 Pandemic Standards

What are the chances that conditions in California will allow for fall college sports?

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NCAA issues next set of return-to-sport guidelines: The third installment of recommendations outlines daily self-health checks, testing within 72 hours of competition for high contact risk sports. Image

What’s that? Leadership-like-substance from the NCAA? Everybody’s favorite cartel has finally put out standards for how athletic departments and conferences should handle COVID-19, both in terms of prevention and case response. You can read the NCAA’s release here, or a good summary of what it means from The Athletic. Despite my NCAA-bashing, both in the past and in the inevitable future, this appears to largely be a well-considered document.

Most notably, the NCAA identified the following circumstances that might warrant shutting down athletic competition:

  • A lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high contact risk cases on campus.

  • Unavailability or inability to perform symptomatic, surveillance and pre-competition testing when warranted and as per recommendations in this document.

  • Campuswide or local community test rates that are considered unsafe by local public health officials.

  • Inability to perform adequate contact tracing consistent with governmental requirements or recommendations.

  • Local public health officials stating that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

Some or all of these conditions are already happening in multiple states throughout the country. For one obvious, close-to-home example: Even during the summer Cal has struggled to prevent campus-related spread. The state as a whole has experienced significant testing delays. Current conditions in Alameda county (and much of the rest of the state) are considered unsafe enough that the state has reimposed a shutdown of indoor gatherings and commerce. Meanwhile, California’s ability to perform contact tracing has been overwhelmed by the sudden growth in cases. And while most of the state has thankfully avoided hospital surge situations, conditions in parts of LA county are concerning.

In short, our state currently has roughly 4.5 of the 5 items listed as a reason to pause or discontinue athletic events. If the season were scheduled to start next Saturday, it wouldn’t be starting. Things can certainly change in the space of a month or two, but the trend is ominous.

But hey, we try to be optimistic in these parts. Maybe the most recent shut down, along with a mask mandate, will have the intended impact. Maybe California’s cases will go down. If conditions improve, how well can Cal and the rest of the conference follow these new NCAA standards? Here are some of the procedures Cal would need to follow:

  • Isolating athletes that test positive for at least 10 days (asymptomatic), or 72 hours after symptoms cease.

  • Isolating all individuals with a high risk of having been exposed to a positive test for 14 days, as per CDC guidelines. To quote the NCAA report: “ . . . in some cases, this could mean an entire team (or teams).”

  • Face coverings during team practice

  • For ‘high contact risk sports’ (i.e. football), COVID testing every two weeks during volunteer/summer activity, and weekly testing during the season itself.

These are just what jumped out at me on a first scan of the NCAA document. Some of these items are doable but unpleasant - wearing a mask during football practice strikes me as highly unpleasant. Others could obviously disrupt a season. One positive test means that, at a minimum, an entire position group is likely to be out of commission for two weeks.

Meanwhile, the availability of testing capacity is going to be a significant strain. As noted above, lack of test capacity means that California has a tiered approach to test availability:

Tier 1: Hospitalized patients with COVID symptoms and their close contacts
Tier 2: Anybody with symptoms, health care professionals and other critical job classifications.
Tier 3: Other essential workers (grocery store employees, etc.)
Tier 4: Everybody else

Weekly testing for football programs would clearly fall in Tier 4 and thus would be subject to test availability. And even if universities can obtain the testing capacity, the optics of paying for weekly tests (~$100 a pop) for the entire football team and staff is not great.

So, a mild form of kudos to the NCAA: they didn’t pawn off the decision making to every individual conference or university. They also didn’t write up rules designed to maximize the chances of football being played while trying to minimize the threat of lawsuits. to the eye of this non-epidemiologist, they put together a solid set of procedures that would allow for sports while minimizing virus transmission . . . if we ever have local conditions that might allow for a restart of activity in the first place.

If I were an athletic director or a coach, I’d read through the NCAA’s document, read through the news, and quickly come to the conclusion that it’s time to prepare for a fall without football, whatever that looks like.

And as a fan, I’m doing the same. You’re welcome to join me in the 4th stage of grief.