Big Ten football is back, and the league has a deep and rigorous playbook when it comes to COVID-19 procedures.
The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors adopted significant medical protocols, announced Wednesday, including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about starting the football season on the weekend of Oct. 23-24.
The testing standards are more rigorous than both the SEC and ACC, which require three weekly COVID-19 tests.
Daily testing will begin no later than Sept. 30 for Big Ten teams, and the test results must be completed before each practice or game. If a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, they can't play in games for a minimum of 21 days. CDC guidelines recommend an infected person stay home for 14 days before returning to work or activity. Each team will continue its current testing protocols for now.
Dr. James Borchers, the head doctor at Ohio State, said a seven-day transition period will be required following the 14 days needed to recover from COVID-19.
The Big Ten also will rely on positivity rates to determine if programs will practice or play games.
If the team positivity rate is greater than 5%, teams must stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of seven days.
If the team population — players, coaches and support staff — positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk) is at 7.5% or higher, teams must stop regular practices and competition for a minimum of seven days and "reassess metrics until improved."
The Big Ten will have its schools follow a color-coded meter, much like the ones used by community officials.
* Team positivity rate: Green (0-2%, team continues with normal practice and competition); orange and orange/red (2-5%, team must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention; red (5% or higher, team must halt practices and competition for a minimum of seven days).
* Population positivity rate: Green (0-3.5%); orange and orange/red (3.5-7.5%); red (7.5% or greater).
For context, Nebraska has 156 players on its current roster. If eight or more players test positive for COVID-19, the team will have to halt for at least one week.
Borchers says the strategy is to rapidly identify anyone who may have the virus and immediately remove them from in-person team activities.
“Just like everything in medicine, it’s not like we invented this, but we investigated it, and feel very comfortable with that approach moving forward,” said Borchers, who also serves as the co-chair of the Big Ten's Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee. “And we know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practices and game competitions to near 100%.”
The Big Ten will require student-athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games to undergo daily antigen testing. Student-athletes who test positive for the coronavirus through point of contact daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test.
Each institution will designate a chief infection officer to oversee the collection and reporting of data for the Big Ten.
All COVID-19 positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, ECG, echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes.
Morton Schapiro, the chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern president, said the turning point for him in deciding to play football in the fall was the unanimous opinion of the medical experts that the season could proceed safely with the protocols in place.
“The medical opinion changed,” Schapiro said. “There have been a lot of advances in terms of understanding the pandemic and myocarditis and the like over the past five weeks. I’ve always believed, and Paul Samuelson the great economist was once asked why he changed his mind, and he said when the facts change our mind changes.”
Nebraska, last week, confirmed it had acquired 1,200 rapid antigen tests and will be able to regularly test student-athletes in a much faster fashion than the nasal swab, polymerase chain reaction testing currently used.
The rapid testing plan is being developed in partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and will allow NU to turn around 30 to 50 COVID-19 tests per hour in an area at Memorial Stadium not far from the football locker room.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said the Big Ten will cover the expense of COVID-19 testing for league teams.
"We feel very comfortable that we’re where we need to be from a testing standpoint, from an agreement standpoint," Warren said. "So we will have plenty of tests. We are in good shape from a testing standpoint."
Ronald Delancy III
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