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Road Trips, Halloween Parties and Contact Tracing: Inside the SEC's COVID Predicament

Four SEC games have already been postponed this week, causing a scheduling crunch as we head down the home stretch.

At Texas A&M, it was a road trip. At LSU, it was a Halloween party. At Mississippi State, it was, quite possibly, other students on campus.

Over the last few days, COVID-19 found its way into SEC football facilities in an assortment of ways. But positive cases aren’t necessarily behind the league postponing four of the seven games this weekend. What is?

“Candidly,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday, “the numbers around contact tracing have emerged as one of our biggest challenges to playing.” Contact tracing “magnifies” any positive, Sankey says.

Physicians predicted over the summer that contact tracing—not actual positive cases—would present the biggest hurdle to completing a 2020 season. A few months later, their theory is being proven right.

Excluding Auburn (it has 13 positive cases), no SEC team involved in a postponed game has more than four positives on its team, according to school administrators, coaches and sources within those programs. Missouri, in fact, has just two positives. Texas A&M has three. Mississippi State has less than five, and LSU is thought to have no more than four.

That said, at least 30 combined players at those schools find themselves in quarantine after being deemed high-risk contacts during the contract-tracing process, effectively dropping those teams below the threshold (53 scholarship players and/or a minimum amount at a particular position).

SEC conference logo

Sports Illustrated has exhaustedly written about the contract-tracing issue in college sports for months. In the most recent story on Oct. 19, SI dove into an issue that college leaders describe as complex, subjective and even unfair. Contact tracing has resulted in hundreds of college football players missing two weeks of activity for having been in close contact with a positive carrier of the virus—many of them never turning positive or contagious.

The current operating CDC guidelines define a high-risk contact as someone within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes without each party wearing a mask. According to the CDC, and enforced by local health departments, high-risk contacts must quarantine for a mandatory 14 days.

The lengthy quarantine time is inconsistent among schools and is nine days longer than the NFL’s own protocol, which allows high-risk contacts to “test out” of quarantine on Day 5 after having registered five consecutive negative tests. The latest wave of postponements has revived a debate among college leaders that SI explored in that October story: When can players test out of quarantine like the NFL?

“We have no discussed that with intent among the A5 commissioners,” said Sankey, while later suggesting that CDC guidelines might need an adjustment before college conferences tweak such a protocol.

College football is in somewhat of a battle with its own local health department officials, who are often overseeing contact-tracing protocols (see Cal’s issues here). Some health departments, like those in Berkeley, are aggressive. Others aren’t as much.

“There is no chance that our state health department would let us test out of quarantine,” one SEC administrator told SI on Wednesday.

However, despite Sankey’s comment, those at the top of college football acknowledged last month that they are exploring the potential for a testing-out plan. The most favorable proposal requires close contacts to test negative three consecutive days, Days 5–7 of quarantine, before granting them release on Day 8. They would then need to test negative for the next seven days to remain out of quarantine.

“That seems to be a level of precaution supported by doctors and scientists,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told SI.

Still, there’s a long way to go.

“Right now, there is no way to test out of quarantine,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said Wednesday on TexAgs Radio. “We’ve been working with the CDC. The SEC has taken the lead on that nationally. The NFL has a way to test out of contact tracing, but right now, the process has not been approved for the NCAA.”

Some school presidents are against it, too. If regular students are quarantining for 14 days, they may ask, why shouldn’t athletes? The fact that players are tested regularly and are in a more contained environment is a point some argue.

“The contract tracing is killing us,” Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said last month. “All the sudden the coaches are calling me. They tell me that one kid got it and 12 are out [for contact tracing] and none of the 12 even ever had it.”

That is another point of contention: How many high-risk contacts eventually turn positive? According to those within the industry, very few. And almost none turn positive after Day 7. In fact, Doug Aukerman, a long-time athletic physician and associate athletic director at Oregon State who chairs the Pac-12’s medical advisory board, said last month that he’s unaware of any athlete testing positive in the second week of quarantine.

“By Day 7, if you haven’t turned positive, there’s a decent chance you aren’t going to test positive,” says Chris Klenck, the team physician at Tennessee who leads the school’s COVID program. “After Day 11, there’s almost no chance.”

The CDC’s median time for infection is about four-to-five days. However, its mandatory quarantine period is set at 14 days to catch those close contacts who take considerably longer to turn positive. There are examples of close contact patients, not necessarily athletes, who have tested negative while in quarantine on Days 5–9 and then produce a positive result on Day 12, physicians say.

“People stifle about it, but that’s where the science is right now,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University and an infectious disease expert.

In good news, the SEC is still not seeing on-field transmission of the virus, something SI reported last month via in-game tracking data that the league provided.

So what’s behind the rising cases? For months now, scientists have evidence of cases spiking in light of holidays. Halloween was a week-and-a-half ago.

Also, the nation in general is in the midst of one of the biggest upticks since the virus arrived in America, with several record-setting days last week. In the SEC, bye weeks are happening now that the league has reached the midway point. Time off can lead to viral spread.

And then there are road trips. Administrators at Baylor and Florida both attributed outbreaks earlier this year to cramped visiting locker rooms and tight spaces during travel. That contributed to A&M’s latest issues, says Bjork. The Aggies played at South Carolina last weekend.

“If we had played a home game last week, things would have been a lot different, but we were on a plane,” he said. “It just comes down to a numbers game and location. We had one person in a middle seat who ended up knocking out 16 others [through contact tracing].”

And now the SEC is faced with a real dilemma. The conference implemented flexibility in its schedule with a Dec. 12 open date for COVID-impacted games. Halfway through the season, 10 of the league’s 14 teams have already shifted games to that weekend. The situation is dire enough that on Tuesday, SEC administrators approved a proposal to grant a second COVID-flex weekend on Dec. 19 for those games not involving division champions, who would be competing in the SEC title game that day.

That won’t solve everything. In fact, LSU is at the center of the issue, having games against Alabama and Florida both postponed. Because of Florida COVID issues in October, its game against the Gators was moved to the Dec. 12 date. Its game against Alabama has nowhere to go. What complicates matters is Alabama and Florida are currently leading their division and, many would say, are destined to meet in the title game.

Could the SEC play LSU-Alabama on Nov. 21 or Dec. 5? Sure, but that would mean moving other games. LSU’s games those weekends would shift to Dec. 19, and Alabama’s would shift to Dec. 12 (the Tide are one of four teams currently without a Dec. 12 game, for now).

Sankey would not speculate on moving currently scheduled games to accommodate a matchup such as LSU and Alabama before championship weekend. But those in Baton Rouge are preparing for the possibility of playing Ole Miss or Arkansas on Dec. 19.

The SEC isn’t alone in this fight. Even programs that are testing every day are enveloped with positives and quarantining high-risk contacts (See Wisconsin, Maryland, etc.). Daily testing isn’t a sure way to avoid infections and tracing.

“You can’t test your way out of a pandemic,” says Shane Speights, the dean of the NYIT medical school at Arkansas State, who oversees virus testing at ASU.

At least the SEC has some flexibility. The Big Ten, trying to play nine games in nine weeks, does not. The league lost a third game in three weeks on Wednesday when Maryland announced its game against Ohio State was off because of COVID issues.

But who’s really surprised?

After all, says Florida coach Dan Mullen, “It's 2020. It is what it is. There’s not a lot stunning to me anymore this season.”