Why COVID-19 Outbreaks in College Sports Should Scare You

Why COVID-19 Outbreaks in College Sports Should Scare You

Gene Taylor thought he was playing it safe when he allowed preseason football practices at Kansas State University to start on June 15. It was two weeks later than some other teams had started practicing—a significant setback in the hyper-competitive Big 12 conference. Every athlete was quarantined for at least a week after they arrived, then tested for the virus. Those who tested negative underwent daily temperature checks and questioning before they could work out. For the first week, it looked like the team had pulled off the impossible: Not one player tested positive.

But a few players showed up late, either because they were freshmen or transfer students, and weren’t tested until the Friday before. The athletics department told them to isolate themselves until the following Monday, when they would get their results back. But college students are college students, and two of them didn’t listen. One player went to a birthday party over the weekend; another went to play video games in an apartment with eight to 10 other people. 

“That’s when it started to spread,” Taylor told The Daily Beast in an interview this week.“We had two more, and then we had six, and then we had eight.” 

On June 20, after 14 student-athletes tested positive for the coronavirus, the school suspended football practice until at least July 14.

“The worry for everybody is, how do you protect these kids?” Taylor said. “We can’t put them in a bubble, they are going to go back to their apartments and dorm rooms.”

He added: “It’s going to be a bumpy road for college football.”

In many ways, it already has been. In the six weeks since the NCAA allowed colleges to start preseason training, at least nine schools have suspended practices because of virus outbreaks on their teams. More than 50 schools have reported one or more cases in the athletics department, and over a dozen have reported more than 30. The Big 10, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast, and Patriots League conferences have all made significant changes to their season schedules, and 14 schools have cancelled them altogether.

Of course, sports teams aren’t the only places on campus where coronavirus can spread. (The University of Washington was recently commended for “staying ahead of the coronavirus” after no new athletes tested positive for a week, despite the fact that at least 117 people living in the school’s frat house had tested positive days earlier.) But experts say the results of preseason training contain clues about what we can expect when hundreds of thousands of students return to the 60 percent of U.S. campuses that are restarting in-person education this fall.

These athletes, some experts say, are essentially canaries in a very contagious coal mine.

“I think [these outbreaks] tell us more about what may happen when we get thousands of students back on campus than just what’s happening on athletic teams,” said Zachary O. Binney, an epidemiologist at the Oxford College of Emory University.

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