Exclusive: Power 5 Conferences to Release Universal, Minimum COVID-19 Testing Standards for Fall Sports

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College football players who test positive for COVID-19 this fall will be required to miss at least 10 days of competition, and that number is even higher—a full two weeks—for those who are found to have had contact with a person who tested positive.

These requirements are part of a medical document the Power 5 conferences have drafted to add uniformity to virus testing protocols and response procedures. Sports Illustrated obtained a copy of a draft of the document from July 8. The document is not finalized, but is expected to be released soon by the Power 5 and the NCAA, which are working in concert to create universal, minimum testing standards. 

The six-page document outlines weekly in-season testing requirements, response protocols for positive tests, contact-tracing plans and considerations for game cancellations. “This document is meant to guide institutions in the minimum necessary requirements needed to participate in athletics in the coming year,” the document reads.

College teams will be required to test football players within 72 hours of games using the standard PCR test. Game officials in football and basketball should also be tested weekly, because of their close contact with athletes, the document says. The document, however, does not require tests for coaches, though staff members must wear a mask on the sideline if they are not tested in the same way athletes are. As for other high-risk sports, athletes should be tested within 72 hours of the first game of a week’s set of games. 

High-risk sports include football, basketball, rowing, soccer, wrestling, volleyball, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, rugby, squash and water polo. Meanwhile, intermediate and low risk sports may test “at a less frequent interval,” the document says, without expounding. Athletes who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 are not required to be tested weekly unless they show symptoms, the document says. 

Those who test positive must isolate for at least 10 days from their onset of symptoms/positive test and until they’ve gone at least three days without symptoms, which the document defines as “resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement of respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath).” Those found to have had “high risk” contact with people who have tested positive will quarantine for 14 days. This 14-day quarantine is mandatory. Even if those quarantined test negative for the virus, they must still complete the 14 days without competition—a significant restriction that could knock out large swaths of a football team. “Institutions may consider testing contacts during quarantine if the local testing supply is adequate, however this does not shorten or remove the need for a 14 day quarantine period,” the document says.

A “high risk” contact is defined as those who are within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes while one or both parties is not wearing a mask. That includes anyone participating in face-to-face or contact drills against each other. 

If an athlete or staff member becomes symptomatic between testing and competition, they should be isolated. If athletes develop symptoms during competition, they should be isolated and that information should be shared with the current opponent to assist in decisions about how to proceed with that competition, the document says. As for “out of season” testing, that is being left up to the school, according to the document. “Out of season” is defined by a timeframe outside of mandatory workouts and games.

The document details several conditions that would result in a school discontinuing competition and/or complete seasons: 1) lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high-contact risk cases on campus; 2) inability to perform weekly testing; 3) campus-wide or local community test rates that are considered unsafe by local public health officials; 4) inability to perform adequate contact tracing; 5) local public health officials state that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations.

Nos. 3 and 5 are a great concern for athletic administrators. As detailed in a story last week in SI, administrators’ top concern is that rising cases nationwide will overwhelm local public health departments. That includes inundated hospitals and testing labs, impacting colleges’ own virus-related supplies and potentially slowing test results, as detailed in this SI story published Tuesday.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey noted these issues Monday in an interview on the Paul Finebaum Show. It's not about the death rate or the illness' impact on young people—it's about overwhelmed public health departments. “We need to see the ability for our hospitals and health care systems to manage what’s happening with COVID-19,” Sankey says.

SEC athletic directors met Monday in a meeting that included a host of contingency models for alternate fall schedules, many of which were revealed in a story Wednesday on SI. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have already decided to move to a conference-only schedule in 2020, a route that provides them with both 1) flexibility for interrupted games, and 2) a uniform testing standard to follow.

The document obtained by SI gives the 65 Power 5 conference schools at least a universal standard. Group of 5 conferences and the NCAA are expected to release their own guidelines, too. The American Athletic Conference, for instance, already announced part of its protocol Thursday. The league will require all teams to test athletes at least 72 hours before a game.