BY Art Thiel 04:40PM 08/14/2020

Thiel: Virus-testing capacity stymies Pac-12

Huskies coach Jimmy Lake thinks the SEC, Big Ten and ACC will see the light. But even within the Pac-12, there seems to be gaps in dealing with COVID-19.

The Pac-12 voted unanimously to cancel football in 2020 in part because school leaders realized some schools were less ready to deal with COVID-19 consequences than others.

For those wondering how the smart people at all the Power 5 universities could look at similar data and come to different conclusions regarding whether to attack or retreat from COVID-19, Huskies rookie head football coach Jimmy Lake has an opinion on that.

“I believe all three other conferences are going to follow suit (canceling) in due time,” Lake said Friday on a Zoom conference with reporters. He believes the information upon which the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences acted in canceling football and other fall sports for 2020 will become apparent to the SEC, ACC and Big 12.

Reasons are several, but one less understood has become more clear publicly: Influential and cohesive as are the Pac-12 schools, some cannot get testing done as efficiently as others, and the time gap could allow the virus onto the fields.

Until easy point-of-care testing (or swifter turnarounds for current methods) is universal,  the Pac-12 schools won’t take the risk of contact practices and games.

“There’s too many inconsistencies across our conference to feel comfortable with that,” said Rob Scheidegger, associate athletics director for football health and wellness, who joined Lake on Zoom. “We would really like to see point-of-care testing availability at Washington so that we can ensure that no one is bringing this (virus), from coaches to staff to student-athletes, into our footprint.”

Point of care means a test done on-site, whose results can be known in minutes, not in days, or in many places in the U.S., a week or more. Right now, Huskies athletics seem to have an advantage, because the lab evaluating the nasal-swab tests is on campus at UW Medicine, one of the nation’s premier research facilities.

“We get results in 24 hours or less, which is awesome, and not consistent across our conference,” Scheidegger said. “It’s part of the concern that that our medical advisory group had with moving forward with competition.”

But even 24 hours isn’t good enough, because a player getting a negative test on Friday, then sneaking off with an untested girlfriend, may show up to the stadium Saturday with an infection.

“The 24-hour turnaround tests has limitations,” he said. “There’s a window of time where we don’t know the status of individuals. It makes it difficult for us to ensure that that there aren’t student-athletes and staff bringing the virus into our footprint.

“Point-of-care testing is in development . . . the timeline for that is is hard to to guess.”

But not if you believe the experts at Arizona State and the University of Arizona. They say it’s already here.

Robert C. Robbins is president of UA and also a heart surgeon, so he has specialized knowledge. He was among the Pac-12 CEOs who voted 12-0 to push a decision to play football into 2021. In an interview with Thursday, he said quick tests are being done at the desert schools.

“Our medical experts briefed us about the ability to do rapid testing,” Robbins said. “Us and Arizona State, we had no issue with that. We were way ahead of this game.

“ASU’s got their robotically analyzed saliva test. The problem for (the schools’) testing is, it does require that you have a supply chain of tests kits. We’re just lucky that we’ve got that, because we were in early. But some of the schools, for whatever reason, didn’t have the cadence well enough worked out to be able to get timely testing.”

Nobody’s naming schools, but the smaller towns of Pullman and Corvallis logically would seem disadvantaged, and the four California schools are in regions that are heavily populated hotspots with high demands for testing.

“We’ve been at this since March,” Robbins said. “We’ve refined the protocols – how we collect, how we test, how we get the results back. You need to have it in a timely fashion, especially if you’re testing, say, the day of the game.

“I think we can run a test every three minutes. So within 10 minutes, you can know if an individual is positive or negative. Not everybody has that capability. Trying to scale that in the next couple of weeks would have been really tough.”

Robbins explained that even rapid testing won’t solve everything, because infected  athletes have to be taken off the team, quarantined, and go through a timeline of tests that includes a check for myocarditis, a rare condition in the heart muscle of young athletes that can lead to serious consequences, including heart attacks. That contributed to the decision to pull the plug.

“The idea that in just a couple of weeks the situation in California was going to be dramatically different, we didn’t have a lot of confidence in (that),” Robbins said. “The other thing is, we thought we needed more time to observe these health issues and to get our testing protocols more frequent. The collective wisdom was, ‘Let’s just take a break. Let’s learn as much as we can through observation.’

“When you test positive, you’re quarantined and isolated for two weeks. And then you have to get (a) troponin (blood test), an EKG, monitors to look for arrhythmias, a stress echo and a cardiac MRI before you’re even allowed to return to practice, much less competition.”

The upshot is that a positive test for a collision-sport athlete at this early stage of medical knowledge about a novel coronavirus creates a sequence of events that is beyond the capacity of some schools to manage — or even agree upon. Based upon the differences between Robbins’ claims and the UW experience, there doesn’t seem to be a clearinghouse for information even within the conference.

It’s important to remember that big-time college football has neither the campus resources of pro sports nor a unified leadership that can create and execute policies whose benefits and consequences are nearly uniform. It is uniquely unqualified to manage in a pandemic, which has a universal breadth.

The Pac-12 and Big Ten tacitly seem to understand the point, and have backed away from the risk, fearing what they don’t know. For the rest, the hope is that, for the sake of players and coaches and not TV money, Lake’s forecast comes true.



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  • jafabian

    Even if the fall sports were done in a bubble the people involved in making the sports happen can’t always be accounted for. Then there’s the food and athletic supplies that would be needed that are brought in that can only be checked out by so much. Plus the players who fly in from home across the nation. You have a player come in from Florida or New York and they would have to be immediately quarantined. Better to wait until next season. I really hope they don’t try to have Spring football and then again in the Fall. With California now passing 600,000 in Coronavirus cases and 4 of the PAC12 schools based there that alone warrants cancelling for now. The quicker everyone is on what needs to be done to prevent the spread of this the quicker sports can return.

    • Husky73

      I watched the new Hard Knocks tonight. It is interesting to see what the Chargers and Rams are going through.

      • art thiel

        Well, what are they going through?

        • Husky73

          It seems that both teams have an army of medical personnel and others testing, distancing and disinfecting (no one was injecting) the entire training camp environment continually. I assume the Seahawks do as well. At this point there is no contact. I find it hard to believe that large, sweating and colliding humans can maintain those precautions. Another takeaway—- Luke Donald is a mountain.

          • art thiel

            The key is preventing infected people from taking the field. That’s why all the testing and cleaning. The principle seem to be working in the NBA and NHL bubbles. But the NFL isn’t in a bubble.

    • art thiel

      I agree. Lake proposed an eight-game spring schedule and moving back the start of the 2021 season to November. That makes some sense, but rosters will be stripped of top players prepped of players.

      Any hope of serious virus containment rests upon the decisions of Nov. 3.

      • tor5

        I’d generally side with cancelling everything until next fall, but I realize the revenue crisis for schools is monumental. I suppose there’s no harm in planning for spring football; just gotta be nimble and humble about the unknowns. As for the timeline for hope, I’d say it rests more with what happens between Nov. 3 and Jan. 20.

        • art thiel

          No doubt about the financial crisis, but it extends to nearly every facet of American life. As taxpayers and business people, we have to decide whether our education priorities are making K-12 safe, or luxuries like college football.

      • DB

        It is the State Governors who are setting and managing virus containment policies. It’s been that way since early in the spring when many of them pushed back on the administration’s initial efforts to establish Federal policy. Recall, the Govs of California, Oregon, and Washington declaring that they would join together to set policy on the ‘west coast’ and that they would ignore any Federal policy directives.? In the face of that, Trump conceded and agreed that it was better to do things State-by State. It was the right approach since the States vary in population density, etc. I appreciate that this doesn’t fit your preferred narrative, which you have repeated multiple times these past weeks. Nov 3rd will not change a thing. The Governors (and Mayors), will continue to set virus containment policies.

        • art thiel

          The federal govt has a large role in disaster response. In this case it should have included deployment of the Defense Production Act to make factories produce things like ventilators and PPE and assure that supply lines deliver quickly to every governor’s call. Trump abdicated. Numerous governors said they ended up competing with one another for third-party goods while the feds sat on inventories.

          Nor did he deploy other services like transpo and security that have always been part of the federal response. Trump didn’t want the federal government to seem valuable because it undercut his “Deep State” boogeymen theory.

  • John

    My two cents worth. I think the well being and health of the people involved is more important than the money involved in this level of college athletics. What I would like to see, by the notoriously slow to get a clue NCAA, give all the athletes an additional year or two of eligibility, because of the Coronavirus, so the athletes have a chance to move on to the professional level, That way, the athletes don’t have to contend with a lost season having an effect on their potential careers in professional sports. I am sure the non-athletic students are still getting their opportunities to earn their degrees. Why not the athletic students as well?
    Ok, maybe I offered more like 2 and a half cents worth.