The long-awaited Pac-12 football season is just getting started, and it already feels fragile after a quadruple-whammy of COVID-19 news last week.
In Berkeley, Cal was forced into a cancellation because of one positive test.
In Salt Lake City, a collection of positives sent Utah under the minimum-player threshold and caused the Utes to cancel.
Prior to kickoff, Stanford announced three players, including quarterback Davis Mills, were out.
Then, late Saturday night, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich said that his team was without 32 players.
It’s unclear how many of the absences were related to COVID-19 — but the Rolovich revelation added to a growing concern sense that has swept the conference in the past five days.
Case counts aren’t the problem. The athletes are being careful; they are desperate to play.
Best we can tell, only Utah has more than a handful of positive tests. (That’s no surprise, unfortunately: The entire state is currently under COVID assault.)
Instead, the problem is the contact tracing process that leads to the quarantines that lead to, in the case of Cal and Utah, teams not having enough players.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re able to play unless you’re perfect,’’ one high-ranking conference source told the Pac-12 Hotline over the weekend. “It doesn’t make any sense. Then why are we doing all this testing?”
The Pac-12’s daily testing plan was supposed to prevent the very problems that have derailed Cal and Utah, that cost Stanford its quarterback … that threaten to swallow whole the young season.
As the conference itself said in the news release that announced the testing partnership with Quidel Corp:
“In addition to significantly decreasing the risk of spreading the infection in student-athletes, coaches and staff members through sport, a daily testing protocol will also reduce the potential burden on local health authorities to carry out widespread contact tracing.”
Concern is rising. Confusion is rampant. Answers are elusive.
The schools are reluctant to name names or numbers (i.e., how many cases, how many players in quarantine) because of student privacy laws.
But they’re also mum on specifics in order to protect relationships with university and local health officials that are vital to the process.
And there’s an added complication: The Pac-12 established the daily testing plan, but it did not create conference-wide guidelines for the contact tracing and quarantine protocols that are at the root of the current problems.
Instead, the conference has what one source described as a “blanket deferral,” in which ultimate authority was left to campus and local health authorities.
That makes it more difficult to estimate the threat level or project outcomes.
Every campus has a slightly different process based on its relationship with local health officials and the protocols established after the Pac-12 voted to restart the season.
At some schools, university health officials are in charge of contact tracing process and the determination on quarantines.
But at Cal, the City of Berkeley is calling the shots, which makes for an extraordinarily fragile situation.
The Bears had one positive test — a defensive lineman, according to sources — and were directed by Berkeley health officials to place the entire position group in quarantine for two weeks.
Without a defensive line, they had to cancel the opener against Washington.
“(The players have) done a really good job of trying to do everything we’ve asked them to do, that the institution has asked them to do, and we thought that the state and (local) public health office was asking them to do,’’ said coach Justin Wilcox, who could not hide his frustration.
A conference source echoed Wilcox’s sentiments, only without the filter:
“It’s ridiculous. They did everything possible protocol-wise to avoid this exact situation and then were told what they did was not enough.”
Again, the details are elusive.
The Hotline asked Cal to explain why the detailed distancing, mitigation and testing plans implemented prior to the season weren’t enough to prevent the quarantine of an entire position group after one positive — and asymptomatic — case.
The athletic department issued the following statement in response:
“We have been incredibly diligent and conservative on how to structure a practice from the very beginning, including limiting the length of periods and alternating between contact and non-contact periods, and conducting all position meetings outdoors. We designed our practice to minimize close contact, and campus officials are talking with Berkeley Public Health with hopes for further guidance on how to proceed.”
The CDC definition of a close contact is someone within six feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours, with the resulting 14-day quarantine.
That’s true everywhere. What’s not universal is the degree to which the contact tracing process is applied or the health and safety protocols are considered.
(Several Pac-12 sources believe the process is more stringent out west than in other regions because of the politicization of COVID. But absent the specifics from other schools, that is difficult to prove.)
Based on the comments by Wilcox and the statement by Cal, it appears Berkeley health officials are not taking the mitigation measures, including the daily testing, into account.
The Hotline spoke to a City of Berkeley communications official, Matthai Chakko, last week and was told that negative tests were not a get-out-of-quarantine card.
“Testing is not a treatment,’’ he said. “Testing is not a vaccine.”
In response, I posed the following hypothetical:
“So if I were considered a close contact and placed in quarantine, then tested negative every day for 13 consecutive days, I would still have to spend the 14th day in quarantine?”
If the defensive linemen currently in quarantine are not released this week — they have tested negative since their last contact with the infected teammate — then the Bears likely will be forced to cancel this week’s trip to Arizona State.
But that is, potentially, just the beginning.
If a single positive test wipes out an entire position group for 14 days, Cal’s season is on the brink.
Imagine the Bears emerging from this two-week shutdown, only to have a third-string left tackle test positive. The entire offensive line would be shut down for two weeks, and more games would be canceled.
Which is why the Bears could be left with one option to save their season.
If they are unable to find manageable “further guidance” from the City of Berkeley, they must leave town.
That’s right: Pack up and relocate.
Move somewhere else in the Bay Area, or move to Nevada — anywhere they can gain flexibility with the contact tracing and quarantine process.
The move would undoubtedly spark intense blowback, and we’re sure chancellor Carol Christ, who was in favor of restarting the season, would have deep reservations.
But the players aren’t physically in classes. They’re learning by remote instruction, just like every other student.
That wouldn’t change with a move to Reno. Or Fresno.
In fact, the bubble environment would be better in every respect: Less chance of exposure to the virus away from team activities. Fewer distractions. Nothing to do but football and school.
And if the optics make you recoil, if the image of a bubble for amateur athletes makes you cringe, please: The university already decided to play football in a pandemic. And it was the right decision.
Stanford already relocated to San Mateo County for practice before it was cleared for workouts on campus. And it was the right decision.
The football is safe. There is no evidence that transmission is occurring within team activities; nor have there been any reports of hospitalizations among players participating this season.
Meanwhile, the City of Berkeley is insisting that a close contact who repeatedly tests negative must remain in quarantine for 14 days.
Think about it: One positive test — asymptomatic, no less — shut down an entire team for two weeks.
Our source is right: It is ridiculous, and it might leave the Bears with only one option to save their season.
Jon Wilner’s Pac-12 hotline can be found here.
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