'It's About Time': New CDC Guidelines a Positive Step for College Athletics

The CDC plans to shorten its mandatory quarantine time is a "big damn deal" for college athletics programs.
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You may not have heard any boom or roar or applause. There weren’t any celebratory social media posts or joyous statements released to the public.

But on Tuesday night, high-ranking members in college athletics rejoiced over emerging medical news. The CDC plans to shorten by half its mandatory quarantine time for those who come into close contact with a COVID-19 positive, according to a report from The Associated Press. High-risk contacts who are asymptomatic can now return to normal activity after 10 days or leave quarantine after the seventh day with a negative test.

Current CDC guidelines recommend high-risk contacts, who are symptomatic or not, to quarantine for 14 days without any ability to test out.

“We had heard this may be happening,” says Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director who sits on the NCAA DI Council. “This is big news, especially for basketball season and as we finish play in football the next month and a half.”

Another athletic director described the news as a “big damn deal,” and a team physician called it “very big.”

College administrators and physicians expect most conferences to adjust their protocols to mirror the new CDC recommendations. Each league has its own medical advisory group and its own protocols.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, in a message to Sports Illustrated on Tuesday night, says he does not expect any “immediate impact” of the CDC news, but “I am sure our doctors and consultants will discuss.”

Most conferences follow CDC guidelines. Leagues have required a player or coach to quarantine for a full two weeks if it is determined that they are a high-risk contact. A high-risk contact is anyone who is within six feet for more than 15 minutes of a person who tested positive without each party wearing a mask.

The process by which this is determined—referred to as contact tracing—has become the single biggest hurdle to playing college sports. Contact tracing has ensnared hundreds, if not thousands, of coaches and players for two-week-long quarantines that, ultimately, result in very few eventually turning positive, according to college leaders.

College officials estimate that the vast majority of players who have missed games this season were because of contact tracing—not positive tests. More than 100 games have been postponed or canceled for such COVID-related issues.

Meanwhile, the NFL has allowed high-risk contacts to leave quarantine with a negative test after five days. But college sports has made no such adjustment to its policy, likely because of local medical regulations. Universities and conferences have been in a silent fight with local and state public health departments, many of which are requiring campuses to stringently follow CDC guidelines.

“I think it’s going to be widely adopted rapidly,” says Jeff Dugas, Troy’s team doctor and an orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham who chairs the Sun Belt’s COVID-19 advisory panel. “I expect sports leagues and organizations and conferences are going to adopt that policy very quickly.”

However, some questions remain unanswered. The CDC, for instance, hasn’t officially announced the change. Also, Dugas wonders what kind of test—antigen or PCR—is recommended to allow a contact to test out. He believes that a PCR, the gold standard, should be required. And when exactly do you test?

“I think it should be you test after Day 7,” Dugas says. “If it takes several days to get the test back, oh well.”

In October, several high-ranking college leaders told SI that they were exploring the possibility of shortening the contact-tracing quarantine time. The most favorable proposal would require asymptomatic 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 six days to remain out of quarantine. While the CDC still believes the incubation period for the virus is 14 days, most high-risk contacts test positive within a week’s time.

Those in college sports have seen the same.

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

The CDC news comes with just two weeks remaining in college football’s regular season—a point of frustration for some around college sports. Many athletic physicians have known for weeks that the CDC guidelines were overly cautious.

“It’s about time,” says one team trainer.

“It’s probably two months too late,” says another team doctor. “It’s a shame. We knew this a while ago.”

However, the change could significantly benefit college basketball, which has seen dozens of games already impacted over the first week of the season.

While football activities don’t include enough interaction to present high-risk contacts, basketball games and practices will invariably produce close contacts, experts say. The sport is played indoors, for one, and game or practice action involves longer stretches of close contact among players. One positive on a basketball team could land the entire squad—and staff—in quarantine for 14 days.

“It’s scary,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith says about basketball in a pandemic. “I told our coaches to enjoy every game because the next one might be canceled. I don’t think anyone can project what might happen.”

Contact-tracing rules have already bitten plenty of college programs during football season. For example, the SEC had to postpone four of its seven games scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 14 despite a limited number of positives. In fact, just one of five SEC teams that week had more than five positives.

“Candidly,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said that week, “the numbers around contact tracing have emerged as one of our biggest challenges to playing.” Contact tracing “magnifies” any positive, Sankey said then, and he suggested that only a change in CDC recommendations could result in an adjustment to the quarantine rule.

The new CDC change does not impact the recommended isolation time (10 days) for those who test positive. All conferences adhere to that same protocol except the Big Ten, which requires all players who test positive to miss 21 days. That regulation is tied to heart-related protocols, some of which physicians believe is unnecessary for those who are mildly or asymptomatic.