CHICAGO — Infectious disease experts advising the NCAA sounded a cautionary note for the conferences proceeding with fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a serious problem,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a fellow with the Infectious Diseases Society of America and an associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg and we’re trying to make decisions of what time the band plays.”
The Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed fall sports this week in hopes of playing those sports in the spring, but the other three Power Five conferences — the Big 12, ACC and SEC — for now plan to proceed with their fall football schedules. That plan, experts say, should expect to bring about new transmissions among athletes and the communities where they live.
Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, noted at least 1 percent to 2 percent of NCAA athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 before most teams began full-contact practices, and “about” 12 athletes have developed myocarditis, a rare heart inflammation that emerging studies have shown could be a complication from COVID-19.
The NCAA plans to introduce more stringent guidelines for screening for the complication.
Other viruses can cause myocarditis, but some studies indicate a higher rate with COVID-19. The Big 12 said it would provide cardiac tests to athletes who test positive for the virus.
“One case of myocarditis in an athlete is too many,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, who also sits on the NCAA advisory panel and is an associate professor of infectious disease at Emory.
Experts stated disappointment in the lack of progress nationally in containing the spread and encouraged those involved in sports to think of the virus beyond the playing field as a means for returning to games. Hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing remain important, they said.
In March, when colleges shuttered spring sports as the pandemic rooted in the U.S., Hainline said he expected significantly more progress by fall.
“The biggest challenge is the trajectory of the pandemic,” he said. “These are decisions that individuals in the United States and the population as a whole are putting us where we are. It’s not just about testing. It’s going to be about where are we as a country and where are we as humanity in making decisions for one another so we get through this pandemic together.
“It’s not just about football in the spring. It’s more importantly where are we as human beings taking care of one other. I don’t know where we’ll be in the spring, but where we are today, it’s exceptionally disappointing.”
Whether college sports can resume this winter or whether football can take place in the spring could be determined by local infection rates and health care infrastructure. Del Rio said the rate for a safe return in a state or region should be somewhere between five and 10 cases per 100,000 people.
He pointed to Georgia’s troubling rate of 30 cases per 100,000 people.
“I work in hospitals. I see how we’re getting overwhelmed,” del Rio said. “In the state of Georgia, 98 percent of hospital beds and 97 percent of ICUs are at capacity. We don’t have a lot of capacity to take care of people if you were to have an outbreak bigger than what we have because you have some sports event or college event. You would be in a very serious situation, and I don’t want to be there. My advice is we hold off and we control this virus.”
On Wednesday, the country reported 1,486 COVID-19-related deaths — its highest single-day total since mid-May. The seven-day average of newly reported deaths has remained above 1,000 for 17 consecutive days.
Georgia (105), North Carolina (45) and Texas (324) all reported their highest daily death totals from the virus Wednesday.
Conferences proceeding with a fall sports schedule should expect to see positive tests and even outbreaks, the experts advised.
“There are a number of ways to approach complicated issues,” Kraft said. “One of them is to dip your toe in and see what happens, and I think that’s what we’re seeing a little bit from the conferences that are continuing to try to play. There will be transmission. It will be difficult, and recommendations will have to evolve because there will be cases.”
A bubble-like model has been floated with college sports taking place after Thanksgiving, when much of the student body leaves campus until the spring semester begins in January at many universities.
Doctors stressed that football is a complicated sport to navigate through the pandemic. They cited poor ventilation and tight quarters in locker rooms as well as large rosters and travel to other campuses where testing might not be as stringent.
The lack of universal standards and unequal testing ability from campus to campus was cited in the postponement decisions by the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other conferences.
“The greatest risk of football is one team competing against another team,” Hainline said, “and you have to be certain both teams have been following very strict standards so you’re not taking one team in a relatively secure bubble and exposing it to another team that has not.”
Del Rio noted research has made progress and there could be a vaccine and improved treatment drugs by spring. If individuals follow guidelines more closely based on community health, he said, sports have a stronger chance of returning sooner.
“We should really think about sports not about how do we get it done, but how do we get the pandemic under control,” he said. “This pandemic is not forever. We’ll find our way through research and innovation. Think: We’re taking a pause, but we’re not stopping everything. Support research. And in the meantime, wear your mask, watch your distance, wash your hands.”
Story by Shannon Ryan
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