Like many in college football, the defending national champions are as well battling a viral outbreak.
At least one-quarter of LSU’s football team was in quarantine this week because of virus-related concerns, multiple sources tell Sports Illustrated, but that number is continuously fluctuating based on test results. At least 30 of LSU's 115 players have been isolated because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were found to have had contact with those who tested positive.
High-ranking LSU athletic department officials declined comment Saturday, citing medical privacy laws. They referred SI to Shelly Mullenix, the school’s long-time senior associate athletic trainer. In an interview Saturday, Mullenix declined to confirm the numbers of those who have or had been quarantined, but said LSU’s situation was on par with a nationwide uptick in the virus related to the Memorial Day holiday and the widespread mass gatherings from protests. “It’s not surprising we’re seeing the rise right now,” she told SI. “It’s a pandemic. We should not be shocked. The story is that it’s exactly what we said it would be. We were prepared from the get-go for a lot of virus. The good news is we’re seeing subtle virus illness.”
No LSU athlete or staff member has required hospitalization, and very few have experienced effects beyond mild symptoms. Officials are thankful that athletes were on campus, where the school has quick accessibility to testing and results.
A portion of LSU’s football players are quarantined after frequenting a string of nightclubs near the school’s campus called Tigerland. On Friday, the Louisiana Department of Health announced that more than 100 Tigerland bar-goers have tested positive for the virus and warned those who have frequented the establishments to quarantine for at least 14 days. Mullenix is in constant contact with the Louisiana Department of Health, showing health officials team trends, a process that helped reveal the Tigerland bar outbreak.
Infected or potentially infected LSU players have been isolating with roommates in their on-campus apartments, and some of them have continued to participate in modified, outdoor workouts with their own quarantine group, though they are not required to do so. Meanwhile, constant testing is being administered through the contract-tracing process. The school, in fact, got good news Friday night, when test results returned negative for a group of players who had frequented the bars. Mullenix is confident that LSU’s facility safety protocols have worked. None of the positive cases have been traced back to workouts within the facility, but have been contracted in the community, at bars and restaurants. “When you do contact tracing and get some honesty from kids, it’s very easy to see where it came from and what happened,” Mullenix says. “I can talk to them about wearing a mask, but if your mask is under your nose, you’re not wearing a mask.”
LSU was one of a handful of programs that did not initially test all athletes once they returned to campus in early June, only administering the antibody test. That decision did not impact the recent surge, Mullenix says, as LSU’s uptick in cases were a result of gatherings in the Baton Rouge community. The school is aggressively conducting diagnostic testing on those who show symptoms or those who have been found to contact players who tested positive.
LSU officials describe their quarantine method as a “better safe than sorry” approach, isolating those with even a small trace of contact with people who have tested positive. “I’m protecting Baton Rouge from getting a higher viral load. That’s my obligation,” Mullenix says. “The quarantine, while frustrating, prevents community spread.”
The news in Baton Rouge comes on the heels of Clemson announcing that 28 people in the athletic department had tested positive for the virus, including 21 football players and two staff members. Earlier this week, Texas announced that 13 players had tested positive for the virus and that 10 more were in quarantine. Kansas State announced Saturday that it is pausing voluntary workouts for 14 days, after a total of 14 athletes tested positive for COVID-19.
Several schools, including LSU, are not announcing their positive test totals. According to reported numbers and announcements, more than 60 Division I players have tested positive with more than 100 in isolation or quarantine. The true numbers, though, are much higher. Medical staff members from various schools are in constant communication, sharing information with one another. Mullenix says LSU’s situation isn’t vastly different than other programs.
A return to on-campus workouts brought with it a fear that is now being realized: Athletes are contracting the virus while attending social gatherings when outside of their school’s sanitized facility. That’s becoming the case at LSU. “People are human. When you’re told you can go back out, you’ve been locked up for so long, there’s really not a middle ground,” Mullenix says. “Right thing to do is put on your mask, go to those places and pick up your order. We’re so desperate to socialize because we’re humans. It’s hard to pull back from that.”
An athletic director at another SEC school, for instance, told SI on Friday that several of his football players contracted the virus through a game of cards. The college environment presents a challenge unlike the professional levels, but Mullenix says she remains hopeful that a 2020 football season will be played. “I don’t know that I feel worse than I did two months ago—I feel better,” she says. “What I understand from my colleagues around the country and just sharing the numbers is that we’re doing really well. No one is getting really ill and hospitalized. I could see where the train of thought could be, ‘We seem to be moving through this virus.’ For every day, we are learning more information. Part of me feels good. If we were seeing no virus and knew the virus was spiking everywhere, that would not be good.”
LSU’s in-facility protocols are intense. Players enter the football facility through one entrance while coaches enter through another. Infrared cameras read players’ temperatures before each athlete meets with a trainer for a lengthy questionnaire. If cleared, they are handed a bracelet giving them freedom to move around the facility. This process repeats each day. Mullenix says that roughly two-thirds of cases have been caught because of fever.
Mullenix’s chief concern is asymptomatic players returning home to visit their families, potentially infecting their older relatives. LSU is encouraging all players to remain on campus over the weekend. In a more global expectation, Mullenix hopes the virus “moves through” college athletics. Experts are seeing that those who contract the virus a second time are only shedding for one to two days as opposed to their first infection, which can shed up to two weeks. “It is at a high contagion right now. It’s a trend,” Mullenix says. “They’re seeing that in the hospital as well. There’s an uptick. We’re coming off holidays and protests. All those things add to it.”