The mere consideration of the Pac-12 playing football this fall had been dead and buried for nearly a month when the league took a significant step forward on Sept. 3.
In the early afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere, the Pac-12 announced a testing-research initiative with Quidel, a San Diego-based manufacturer of diagnostic healthcare products. At the center of the agreement was Quidel providing all Pac-12 athletic departments the ability to conduct rapid-result, daily-antigen testing for its student-athletes.
Immediately, optimism exploded that daily-antigen testing would be a critical component towards getting fall football played by the preeminent college athletics conference in the Western United States. Almost one month earlier on Aug. 11, citing concerns from the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee regarding contact practices, the league postponed all sports through at least Jan. 1.
Daily-antigen testing arrived inside the University of Utah athletic department earlier this month, not long after the Pac-12 announced on Sept. 24 it would push forward with a seven-game, conference-only schedule. That Quidel-produced testing, and by extension, football and basketball, do not happen beginning next month without a village helping and, more importantly, buying in.
“The athletes buying in makes all the difference in the world,” Trevor Jameson, Utah’s director of athletic training and the point man on the athletic department’s daily-antigen testing, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Testing does not prevent anyone from getting COVID, and that’s the message. Testing will identify if someone has it and we can quickly quarantine. We ask them to socially distance properly, and we try to provide as much safety for them as possible.”
A morning email and a green light
For now, the Pac-12 is concentrating its Quidel partnership on sports that are readying to begin their seasons, which means football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. As far as Utah goes, per Jameson, the athletic department is conducting between 180-190 student-athlete tests on a daily basis.
Each morning, those student-athletes receive an email with a questionnaire via Google Surveys that asks basic things like, have they been exposed to anyone with COVID, are they showing symptoms, have they been around anyone showing symptoms, etc?
Based on those answers, student-athletes get a green, yellow or red designation. Green means football players may proceed to the Eccles Football Center and basketball players to the Huntsman Basketball Facility for a temperature check. An approved temperature will yield a daily color-coded wristband indicating they are free to move around the facility and get tested.
A yellow or red designation off the questionnaire triggers an alert to an athletic trainer and a phone conversation is had before anything else takes place.
“There has not been a cavalier attitude about this, which I appreciate,” women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts said earlier this month, holding up her right hand to reveal an orange wristband in the process. “I am very hyper-conscious about this thing and to me, it’s very real.”
What does the actual testing entail?
Once a student-athlete has his or her temperature taken and is given a wristband, they are free to undergo Quidel’s rapid-response antigen test, which is a cotton swab up the nose.
With the football and basketball facilities separated by roughly one mile of driving or walking through Utah’s campus, Jameson was happy to point out that test collection does not fall merely on himself and the rest of the athletic department’s sports medicine staff.
More specifically, it is a combination of medical personnel inside the athletic department and former athletic trainers who have their mornings free doing the testing and collecting the 180-190 cotton swabs. This, after Quidel provided on-site training on how to use its testing machine and representatives from the University of Utah hospital system trained the department on how to collect samples. The hospital system has continued to provide oversight as the month of October has rolled on as the football team’s Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona looms.
In addition to the daily-antigen testing via cotton swab, Utah is conducting PCR saliva testing daily on 20% of the football team. Doing PCR saliva testing on the entire football team in one day is unfeasible given the number of players, but that’s not a problem for the two basketball programs, which have their entire rosters do PCR saliva testing once per week.
“There was a lot of planning to get set up and get going, but we’ve had a lot of help along the way,” said Jameson, who has pitched in on test collection on the basketball side. “We’re in a position where other people are coming in, so this has not been a huge burden on our staff.”
Once collected separately at the football and basketball facilities, the test samples are moved to an on-campus conference room-turned-lab. The lab is situated inside where the Huntsman Basketball Facility connects with the old Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) buildings.
In fairness, what “rapid-results testing” actually means varies by sport. Earlier this month, men’s basketball head coach Larry Krystkowiak told ESPN 700 that test results take between an hour and an hour and 15 minutes to come back.
Jameson echoed that, saying basketball can be done “in a little over an hour,” while football tests have been taking between two and two-and-a-half hours.
For football and men’s basketball, those timelines leave plenty of time given both have been practicing in the afternoon. On the other hand, women’s basketball has had some interesting mornings.
After the questionnaires, after the temperature checks, after the wristbands, Roberts' team immediately goes to the women’s basketball area of the Huntsman Facility and directly to the training room for their daily testing. While the Ute women wait for test results to come back, they have breakfast and go through any pre-practice treatment necessary.
Once test results are in, the masks come off and practice begins right away.
“It feels safe and that’s all that matters,” Roberts said. “We can control that when we’re here. What college kids do when they leave here is less predictable. I’ve told our team, ‘Think worst-case scenario.’ We’re given this opportunity. Do not play with fire.”
Krystkowiak added: “Our players are in a safe place, we’ve got a lot of testing going on and I think our players understand the ramifications of it. My fingers are always crossed, but I remain confident that we’re in a good place at the university. What you have to be careful of is what you’re doing when you leave the campus.”
With testing up and running, now what?
There is no guarantee in this COVID-19 environment that the Pac-12 makes it through its full seven-game football schedule, but thanks to uniform testing and medical protocols, plus the fact there will be no nonconference games, the league is giving itself a fighting chance to go collectively unscathed, or at least minimally disrupted.
Daily testing and medical protocols have added an extra layer of things to deal with, if not worry about for the football program, but, as Britain Covey pointed out last week during a Pac-12 media webinar, everyone has two choices.
“Most of us would prefer to play six of seven games with daily COVID testing, with all these protocols and restrictions than the opposite,” the redshirt junior wide receiver said, referencing that the Pac-12 was at one point going to have fall practice, but no games. “We’re willing to go through all these things and I’m grateful to our athletic department for how transparent they’ve been with it because it’s not easy.”
Basketball is not in the same boat as football. Men’s basketball has the option of scheduling up to seven nonconference games as part of a 27-game schedule, and the women three as part of a 25-game schedule. To this end, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has made clear that his basketball teams will not compete against a team or in a multi-team event that cannot match Utah’s testing capabilities, which are daily.
Krystkowiak’s team will open the season Nov. 25-27 at the Crossover Classic, held at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. with the testing being conducted by Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health.
During an Oct. 14 press conference in Sioux Falls to announce the event, Sanford Health’s Senior VP of Clinic Control, Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, said the expectation is teams arrive Nov. 23 and are tested that day, the next day, and the day of the first game.
Tournament officials were otherwise on testing protocols, but one Pac-12 source told The Tribune that testing at the event will mirror that of the Pac-12, and Utah would not have signed off on the event without those assurances. Furthermore, among the eight teams in the event, Ohio State from the Big Ten, West Virginia from the Big 12, and Texas A&M from the SEC all have daily-testing capabilities.
“I know they were ironing some things out, but we’re involved, the Big Ten is involved, and the NCAA has now outlined some testing standards after there wasn’t a whole lot of guidance early,” said Jameson, who travels with the men’s basketball program as its athletic trainer. “I don’t know that it’s up to me in terms of standards and whether or not we play, that goes all the way up to the administration level.”