Rapid testing coming to Pac-12, which has led to new optimism for earlier football start

FILE - Rice-Eccles Stadium is shown before the start of an NCAA college football game between Colorado and Utah Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Losing college football stings across America. While every aspect of society has been jarred by a worldwide pandemic that has claimed more than 160,000 American lives, the potential loss of college football feels like another collective punch to the national psyche. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has been adamant since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that any return-to-play decisions would be based on science and data.

So, when the league announced on Aug. 11 that it was postponing not just football, but all sports until at least Jan. 1, that radical move came less than 24 hours after Scott was presented with a 12-page report from the Pac-12 Medical Advisory. The document advised against contact activity and competition until certain criteria were met, namely cases per 100,000 and 7-day positive test rates were brought under control.

As of Tuesday, the state of Utah’s cases per 100,000 stood at 12.5, while its 7-day rolling positive test rate stood at 9.2%. Based on those numbers, Pac-12 doctors would advise that the Utah athletic department tests its student-athletes daily.

The bad news is, both of those numbers are highest among the six states in which Pac-12 schools reside. The two-pronged good news is, both of those numbers are only a few weeks away from not mattering, and the need for daily testing isn’t going to be a problem.

When the Pac-12 announced last week it had entered into a testing-and-research initiative with San Diego-based Quidel, it included the league getting access to rapid-response testing, giving a result in 15 minutes. Scott called the partnership “a game changer.” On Tuesday, Dr. David Petron, team doctor for the Utes and the Jazz, echoed that sentiment.

“Part of the decision to return to sport is based on how frequently you can do the testing,” Petron told ESPN700 late Tuesday afternoon. “Right now, we’re around 9% positive in Utah. At that, based on our medical experts within the Pac-12 and experts elsewhere, you need to have daily testing. Well, guess what? We now have daily testing. That’s a game changer.”

With Quidel’s rapid-response testing expected to hit Pac-12 athletic departments late this month, Petron exuded fresh optimism that the league could be in a position to back off its Jan. 1 mandate, with football potentially starting around Thanksgiving. If starting football around Thanksgiving comes into focus, it would include a ramp-up window of 4-6 weeks, meaning things would get rolling around mid-October.

Football aside, rapid-response testing is also expected to help the Pac-12 play basketball before Jan. 1, regardless of whether or not it includes a nonconference slate.

Basketball-related decisions, not just in the Pac-12, but across the country, are expected to start happening quickly once the NCAA announces a start date on Sept. 16. That start date is likely to be Nov. 25, but the Pac-12 could still opt to start later.

“I’m just really optimistic with this test,” Petron said. “If we can test on a daily basis and know that an athlete doesn’t have the virus, I don’t see any reason why we can’t travel safely, compete safely, practice safely. We should be able to resume sport.”

Even with the availability of rapid-response testing to Pac-12 schools, the league would still face one huge hurdle given that the four California schools and the two Oregon schools still do not have local or state permission to begin practicing. Would rapid-response testing help appease local and state health officials?

“I’m optimistic that we will get to a point where we can show them what our protocols are going to be and what our plan is going to be that reassures the state that we’re going to be conducting this in a safe manner,” Oregon State’s Dr. Doug Aukerman, Chair of the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee, told The Oregonian’s John Canzano. “I’m optimistic that that is going to happen. It’s been very collaborative up to this point, I don’t see why we can’t find a way forward.”