HOOVER, Ala. — The giant screen erected in the main room of SEC media days normally shows the league’s messaging. It flashes the day’s schedule, clips of championship-winning highlights and the name of the next speaker on the dais.
Throughout this week, it has intermittently projected another kind of message.
“THE SEC BACKS THE VAX,” it reads.
Welcome to the newfound plight of the SEC and all of college football—convincing athletes, coaches, administrators and now, the community to get vaccinated. As the COVID-19 delta variant creeps across the country and the 2021 season inches closer, college football officials have sprung into this frantic mission.
Signs are troubling enough around the country that SEC officials are already preparing to rescind changes to policies they had just passed months ago. The league had originally created a protocol allowing teams that met an 85% vaccination rate to eschew all regular COVID-19 testing and masking.
Soon, that will change under a proposal that has not yet been approved, league officials tell Sports Illustrated. All of those athletes who are not vaccinated would remain in the conference’s surveillance testing program, even if their programs are at the threshold. More changes may be coming. The mask mandate, originally lifted for those teams at 85% vaccination, could be re-imposed, especially on road trips.
COVID-19 cases this week have jumped 145% from two weeks ago. At least 80% of the cases are infected with the delta variant.
“The delta variant is changing how we approach the fall,” says Chris Klenck, the head team physician at Tennessee. “The emerging variant of delta and how much more contagious and how ill it’s making people has made us re-evaluate our strategies.”
Across the country, vaccination is and will be the topic du jour this July at conference media days. Leagues are working to hit an immunity rate to protect their athletes and avoid any in-season game disruptions such as last year, when about one-fifth of games were either canceled, delayed or moved.
For now, most conferences, including the SEC, are issuing a warning to its teams this summer: If a team cannot field enough players to compete in a game, that team will forfeit, instead of the game being deemed a no-contest. It’s yet another incentive to get athletes springing into medical facilities to get the shot.
While several SEC football teams are trending in a strong direction with vaccination rates—six of 14 are at least at 80%—their communities are not, stirring fear that game days will transform into super spreader events or that stadiums will remain partially empty. In fact, the very state in which SEC media days are held this week has the worst vaccination rate in the country at 33.7% of its eligible population. Four of the five worst states in America are in the league’s footprint, including Mississippi (33.8%), Arkansas (35.4%) and Louisiana (36.2%), well below the national rate of 49.2%.
“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination,” says commissioner Greg Sankey. “And we know nothing is perfect, but the availability and the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines are an important and incredible product of science. It's not a political football.”
The vaccination rates here have triggered medical experts from around the southeast to strongly and publicly encourage vaccination. One of those includes Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease physician in Baton Rouge and the leading voice on the league’s medical panel.
In just one small example of the surge, O’Neal says her Baton Rouge hospital admitted 23 patients on Saturday with COVID-19, a mark that approaches levels of last summer.
“The surge is really here,” she says.
The delta variant is more contagious and more lethal than past variants, doctors say. One leading health expert described it as “COVID-19 on steroids.” A recent study found that the delta variant had a viral load of 1,000 times higher than other COVID-19 strands, O’Neal says, and one study found that a single person with delta variant spread the virus to as many as 160 people.
Studies have shown that the vaccine is a successful tool to battle the strand. The two-shot vaccine is 64% protective against infection and 93% effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalization. In the U.S., 99.5% of deaths are among the unvaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At several speaking engagements last week in Louisiana, O’Neal said, “If you don't choose the vaccine, you're choosing death.”
“This virus will spread through us until we are vaccinated,” she says.
Using a sports analogy, O’Neal compares the vaccine to a game-winning sacrifice bunt. While most healthy adults under the age of 50 will not grow seriously ill if they are infected, they can still spread the virus at rates higher than those vaccinated.
“You do it because the team advances. We’ve got to start thinking like a team,” says O’Neal. “The 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds who get it and will be fine, they are the ones who go to work sick. They are the super spreaders.
“We are not thinking about, ‘How is this going to affect me?’ People talk about it a lot. I talk to my patients about it a lot. It’s a compelling argument. I’m a 44-year-old with no medical problems. I’m probably going to be just fine. But when you think about playing for a team, you’re doing it because the team is not going to be just fine. When your team is not fine, you’re not either.”
The league has spent the spring and summer identifying reasons why some athletes are resisting the shot. Most of them are concerned about the temporary illness that some experience and the long-term effects of a vaccine that was only approved for emergency use.
Others have more unusual reasons, such as a belief that the vaccine results in infertility or that the shot is the government’s way of inserting an implant in people, says Klenck.
“There has been no evidence to support those,” he says.
O’Neal, a self-proclaimed southern woman, believes that the resistance to the jab is rooted in her own stubborn culture.
“We don’t like to be told what to do,” she says.
For cultural and political reasons, requiring vaccinations for admittance into SEC football stadiums this fall is likely a non-starter, both O’Neal and Klenck say. Most, if not all, SEC schools plan to have 100% attendance.
That means tens of thousands of people—potentially unvaccinated, with a variant moving through the country—gathering together in a somewhat tight confine.
Either way, the SEC will play football in 2021, O’Neal says. That’s not her concern. What is? SEC fans surviving the season.
“I think we’re ready to play more than our communities are ready to handle this next surge, for sure,” she says. “I’m so worried that people who enjoy football are going to be too sick to watch football. Are we going to be able to participate or are we going to be at funerals?”
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