The Pac-12 might be lagging its peers in the College Football Playoff standings, but it’s more than keeping pace in another area: COVID-19 disruption.
The conference has lost nine games in four weeks since its return in early November, with the USC-Colorado cancellation Thursday the latest instance.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten has canceled or postponed just five games in six weeks.
And the SEC has lost only 10 games in 10 weeks.
The Pac-12 started later, implemented a more rigorous testing plan, crammed seven games into seven weeks … and is experiencing more disruption than its peers.
No, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
It looks like the conference waited too long to get started, then returned under a false assumption that its plan would allow a threading of the schedule needle.
But at the time of the decision to postpone, in early August, the COVID medical advisory board made its priority clear:
Until the Pac-12 could provide daily point-of-care testing for the players — before practice and games — it would not recommend restarting the season.
On Sept. 3, that option arrived in the form of the partnership with Quidel Corp., the San Diego-based diagnostics manufacturer that agreed to provide the conference with daily antigen tests.
Those tests were termed a “game-changer” by commissioner Larry Scott, designed to prevent spread within team activities and limit both the need for contact tracing and the potential for large numbers of players to be placed in quarantine.
At least, that’s what conference officials thought would happen.
— Here’s Scott on a Zoom call with the media following the Quidel announcement:
“This daily rapid-result testing — where you can have a high degree of confidence that no player’s going to step on a basketball court or a football field for practice or competition infectious — eliminates a lot of risk factors that we were worried about, especially with the quarantine and close contacting.”
— And here’s Washington physician Dr. Kim Harmon on that same call:
“Theoretically, when they’re out on the field, they’re not infecting each other. That has big implications in terms of who you need to quarantine because, theoretically, there’s an argument to be made that you would not have to quarantine others on the same field or court when somebody becomes positive, because you knew they weren’t infectious when they were playing.”
— And here’s Oregon State physician Dr. Doug Aukerman:
“By doing daily testing, you can essentially narrow the window of when somebody … began to start shedding virus down to probably a 20- to 24-hour window, if not even shorter. The hope is it reduces some of the burden on contact tracing and the community health departments, because you don’t have to go back quite so far as it relates to the athletic realm.
And yet, here we are — barely one month into the season — and the Pac-12 is declaring no contests every few days.
Given the rate of disruption, it should have scheduled seven games in 17 weeks.
Within the daily uncertainty that has swallowed the season, three things are clear:
1. The virus is spreading much more rapidly throughout the Pac-12 footprint than it was in September and October, when the conference was on hiatus.
(Experts predicted a third wave as the holidays approached and the weather worsened.)
2. There is no evidence of transmission on the field or within team activities.
Instead, the players become exposed to the virus on campus and in the community. They arrive at the football facility, test positive and get sent home.
One athletic director told the Hotline that without the daily testing, the situation would be far worse throughout the conference.
(Seven teams have not been forced to shut down: Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. One team, Arizona State, accounts for three of the nine cancellations.)
3. The primary reason for cancellations isn’t the number of positive cases but the amount of players forced into quarantine by the contact-tracing process.
California couldn’t play in Week 1 because a single positive test landed the entire defensive line in quarantine.
USC canceled this week even though only three players tested positive. But like Cal, the Trojans were left depleted at a single position group because of contact tracing and the resulting quarantines.
Washington State hasn’t disclosed the specifics that forced two cancellations, but the number of positive cases is believed to be only a handful. The rest of the dozen players currently unavailable are in quarantine.
Which brings us back to the start … back to Sept. 3 and the optimistic pronouncements from Scott and the doctors.
Wasn’t daily testing supposed to limit the need for contact tracing? Isn’t that why the conference felt confident enough to schedule seven games in seven weeks?
What, if anything, went wrong?
We put that question to Aukerman, the Oregon State physician who chairs the Pac-12’s Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Initiative.
Aukerman pointed to a significant change at the highest levels — one that he, Harmon and Scott didn’t foresee at the time of the Quidel deal.
In the middle of October, between the release of the Pac-12’s revised schedule and the start of the season, the CDC broadened its definition of close contacts.
Before that point, a two-week quarantine was required for individuals who came within six feet of an infected person for 15 continuous minutes during a 24-hour period.
With the change, quarantines became necessary if an individual came within six feet of an infected person for 15 cumulative minutes over 24 hours.
The change in those two words — continuous to cumulative — had a momentous implications for the quarantine process.
“Now, contact tracing will become even more difficult because it will probably mean a much higher number of contacts per case on average,’’ Crystal Watson, a researcher at John Hopkins, told National Public Radio.
When necessary, the teams adjusted their routines for meetings and practices. But away from the field — where the players spend the majority of their daily lives — the story is much different.
Here’s why: The 15-minutes-in-24-hours net that captures close contacts starts two days before symptoms appear (or before a positive test for asymptomatic individuals).
In other words, if an offensive lineman tests positive, any offensive lineman within six feet of him for 15 cumulative minutes in a 24-hour period over the previous two days would be considered a close contact and require a two-week quarantine.
News flash: Players hang out with each other away from the field, especially players at the same position.
“Contact tracing is very challenging outside the athletic environment,’’ Aukerman said. “Inside the athletic environment, we know what the interactions are, and the activities are designed to decrease their contact.
“But outside, it’s more difficult. Who do you live with? Who are your roommates? By definition, someone living in the same house (as an infected person) is considered high risk. Are they going out to dinner together? What are they doing socially?
“What we’re seeing increasingly is the number of people who are considered (by contact tracers) to be close contacts.”
But all contact tracing is not created equally.
The CDC recommendations are just that: recommendations.
Ultimately, the rigor of the contact tracing process, the enforcement of the 15 cumulative minutes guidance and the willingness to consider extenuating circumstances — it all depends on the state and county.
“In many cases, the local health departments will take into consideration the frequency of testing,’’ Aukerman said.
Whether the contact tracer casts the close-contact net back the full 48 hours from the onset of symptoms (or positive test), Aukerman added, “is not universal.”
We’re fairly confident that an SEC team would not be forced to shut down an entire position group following one positive.
Or that three cases would lead to a cancellation.
The Pac-12’s testing plan is working. The problem, it seems, is everything else.