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Michigan State the Latest and Most Significant Victim of College Football's Biggest Obstacle: Contact Tracing's 14-Day Quarantine

Michigan State announced Friday that its entire team will quarantine for two weeks following a recent round of testing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Donna Shalala isn’t your normal Washington D.C. politician. She’s the former president of two football-playing juggernauts, Miami and Wisconsin. She knows football. And so she knows just how difficult the coronavirus makes playing football this fall. Specifically, she understands the obstacle presented by contact tracing, which requires athletes to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days if they’ve contacted a person who tested positive. Like, for instance, hitting one another in practice or flying on a plane together.

“Have you been on an airplane with football players?” asks Shalala, a rookie member of the House of Representative for South Florida. “They are big guys. Sometimes they leave the middle seat open, but they’re not six feet away from one another.

“It’s getting to the point where I would not be surprised if they shifted all athletics to the spring,” continues Shalala, who still often communicates with high-ranking authorities in college athletics. “The reason is not simply the spread of the disease but one of the things that no one is writing about is contact tracing. Someone on your offensive line gets infected, you have to isolate the entire offensive line for 14 days.”

Shalala gave that quote more than a week ago in an interview with Sports Illustrated. It seems prophetic now. On Friday, Michigan State announced that its entire team—every single player—will be in quarantine for two weeks after a most recent round of tests revealed a positive for a second member of its staff. The Spartans become at least the 12th FBS team this summer to suspend workouts because of either community or campus outbreak. They become the first to publicly announce a full-team quarantine, but they may not be the last.

As written extensively in SI on Tuesday, the biggest obstacle for holding a college football season this fall isn’t the actual positive tests. It isn’t travel. It isn’t testing availability or delayed turnaround times (though those are real concerns). And it isn’t even the return in mid-August of thousands of students on campus (but that’s pretty significant, too).

It is contact tracing, resulting in the potential shutdown of large swaths of a football team—or in Michigan State’s case, the entire team. “That’s a good example of what can happen,” a group of 5 athletic directors said Friday when told the news.

The NCAA and Power 5’s in-season medical plans recommend that a school quarantine players 14 days if they’ve been found to have had a “high risk” contact with a person who tested positive. A high-risk contact includes 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. The Power 5 plan, obtained by SI last week, also includes a “high risk” contact as “anyone participating in face-to-face or contact drills against each other.”

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While the NCAA guidelines aren’t that specific, several doctors believe a high-risk contact is indeed a practice collision. “To me, in football, these physical contacts and moments when people are breathing on each other, are considered high-risk exposures,” says Jon Drezner, the team doctor at Washington and a member of the Pac-12’s virus advisory panel. And while a 14-day quarantine is conservative, doctors say, it does follow along with CDC guidelines. Even with an early negative test, the virus can emerge on Day 13 or Day 14. It’s a safe and not sorry approach.

While presumptuous, the staff members who tested positive at Michigan State are, in all likelihood, people who have had a great deal of contact with players, such as a team trainer, doctor or strength coach. It only makes sense. Why quarantine the entire team if not? The Spartans are in a real predicament now. Friday was the beginning of the NCAA’s new preseason six-week plan: two weeks of “enhanced training” that includes walk-throughs; and four weeks of camp starting around Aug. 7.

While programs around the nation are beginning their most extensive work yet this summer, the Spartans are locked down. Michigan State will be behind others, by two weeks or even more. Players may need to reacclimate when returning on Aug. 7, at the earliest. While other squads are gearing up for the easy transition from walk-throughs to full-scale camp, the Spartans and their new coach Mel Tucker will be, in a sense, restarting workouts all over again.

So what if this happens during the season? The NCAA Football Oversight Committee has been debating that subject, attempting to determine how many players on a team would have to be infected or quarantined to make that team ineligible for play. “Within the Big 12, we’ve talked about, ‘If a certain percentage of your team is out, you’re not going to play.’ Is it 25% of your roster? Who’s signing off on that? Are there ways to make that up?” asks Shane Lyons, the Football Oversight Committee chairman.

Friday got no better, as far as virus news in the world of college sports. Just a few hours after Michigan State’s bombshell, the NCAA hosted its weekly question-and-answer segment on Twitter with Brian Hainline, the first chief medical officer of the NCAA. The segment was one of the more bleak yet. Hainline said testing around the nation continues to be delayed. Turnaround times for results can extend to a week, which is a significant issue for college football teams that must during the season, get results back within 72 hours. He’s not expecting a vaccine anytime soon either. “Let’s be realistic,” he told host Andy Katz and about 500 viewers, “we’ve got to plan well into 2021 (without one). Expecting that by the end of this year or beginning of 2021, it doesn’t seem realistic.”

So what does all this mean? The hurdles remain for college football—most notably, a 14-day quarantine for positive contacts. Michigan State became the most recent and significant victim.

“It’s very tough to do sports this fall. I know they want to, but if you really talk to them, they don’t know how to do it,” Shalala says. “I’m thinking through for every sport and how they travel. Even the schools saying we’re only doing only conference (games). Look at the Big Ten and where you have to go—Rutgers to Maryland to Indiana to Michigan.”