College football programs, at least for now, are playing by different rules.
The Power 5 conferences are allowing their schools to follow new CDC guidelines with a shorter quarantine time for those in contact-tracing protocol, conference leaders tell Sports Illustrated.
Medical advisory groups in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 have adopted or plan to adopt the new guidelines this week, but with a caveat that is leaving the playing field uneven: A school’s local health department has to have adopted the new guidelines. Some state and local health departments have done so while others have not yet made the move—another frustrating hurdle for programs attempting to complete a football season and begin a basketball season, all amid a pandemic.
The CDC announced the new guidelines to its COVID-19 protocols last week, decreasing the quarantine time for those considered high-risk contacts and who are asymptomatic from 14 days to 10 days, or seven days with a negative PCR test. 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, something SI explored deeply here. 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.
The players who do test positive often turn positive within a week’s time of quarantine. The CDC’s policy is to reflect emerging data that shows the majority of people testing positive within a week’s time of quarantine.
College officials estimate that the vast majority of players who have missed games this season were because of contact tracing—not positive tests. Through Week 14 of the season, 113 games have been postponed or canceled, roughly 18% of those originally scheduled. More than 480 games have been played.
Despite the leagues’ adoption of the protocols, not all schools in the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC are following the new guidelines. Some are still adhering to the 14-day protocol while their local or state health departments explore adopting the change.
For instance, in the Pac-12, only the University of Utah's local health department is following the new guidelines, according to the league. In the Big Ten, Northwestern remains under the 14-day protocol while most of the other Big Ten programs have shifted to the new guidelines.
In the SEC, Louisiana and LSU moved to the new protocol while states like Alabama and Mississippi—where four SEC teams reside—have not yet made the switch. Universities and conferences have been in a silent fight with local and state public health departments, many of which are stringently overseeing campus protocols.
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 came 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,” said one team trainer.
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.
For basketball, the policy change is especially significant. 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 said 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.”