There is no definitive answer as to how to handle COVID-19 in college football and the governing body built to make decisions on behalf of its constituents chose to remain silent, leaving conferences and schools to fend for themselves. As Ole Miss continues to deal with the fallout from a flurry of positive tests throughout the program for the second consecutive week, head coach Lane Kiffin brought his issues with the Southeastern Conference’s procedures to the forefront in a press conference on Monday.
“We’ve got some more in the last three days,” Kiffin said. ”It’s becoming very challenging.”
Here’s the thing, when the SEC announced its guidelines for COVID-19 testing in August, it included a minimum of two standard PCR tests per week, which was increased to a three-test requirement later in the month. More notably, the initial release required a 14-day quarantine period for all players and coaches who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus based on contract tracing. It also mentioned that the SEC and its leaders expected the guidelines to change as more information was learned.
That notion of adaptation was quickly tested in late September when a member of the Texas A&M soccer team popped positive during a routine round of testing by the SEC. That player, confused by the result, went to the student health center on campus for a second test that returned negative. The school tested her three more times over the next few days and all three produced negative results.
The player in question was cleared to return to the pitch by the SEC office and as a result, the conference’s COVID-19 task force added a new 151-word policy to its medical guidance requirements. Titled “Considerations for Handling Asymptomatic PCR Positive Tests,” it addressed false positive tests and allows an asymptomatic person who tested positive to return to action if he or she tests negative in three consecutive tests that are administered no less than 24 hours apart.
Despite the fairly significant changes that were made to protocols, the policy was approved by the conference’s task force and executive board without an announcement. Less than 10 days later, the new measures became very consequential when Nick Saban was flagged for a positive test prior to No. 2 Alabama’s game against No. 3 Georgia.
His positive test was conducted not by the SEC, but through a lab that Alabama contracted for increased testing protocols that were even more strict than that of the conference. Saban took the test on Tuesday, the result was announced on Wednesday and the Crimson Tide head coach was administered tests on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings through the conference. All three turned up negative, including the last test that was flown to the SEC’s laboratory in Mobile, Ala. at 7:00 a.m. before the top-five matchup twelve hours later.
Saban would not have been able to coach Alabama to a potential season-defining victory over Georgia without the newly implemented blueprint that stemmed from Texas A&M soccer. Instead, he would have been quarantined over a positive test that was most likely attributed to a lab error or faulty equipment. The SEC adapted to scientific discoveries and made a correct, calculated change.
However, the new guidelines only apply to players and coaches who test positive. They do not extend to players who are in isolation for contract tracing. This is where Ole Miss has seen quite a bit of issues, particularly on defense, and Kiffin has expressed his questions surrounding the approach to contact tracing.
“I still don’t understand how if I get it and [a person] is around me, I’m out for 10 days but [that person] is out for 14 and can’t test out of it,” Kiffin said. “That’s what’s really difficult, losing close contacts for 14 days that continue to test negative.”
If a player or coach tests positive, he or she can test out of protocols. If a player or coach comes in contact with someone who has tested positive, he or she cannot test out of protocols even if he or she does not receive a single positive result at any point in time. There are no clear regulations regarding contact tracing, which leaves interpretation up to the individual programs.
“That to me is the part that’s really frustrating,” Kiffin said. ”Schools have different rules of saying ‘Oh, I think you were around that guy’ or ‘No you weren’t.’ I think in some cases School A is going to play a guy where in the exact same situation School B doesn’t. And that’s really frustrating.”
The Rebels were without Tariqious Tisdale and Jakorey Hawkins in their 33-21 loss to the Razorbacks last weekend, after both players started in the first three games of the season. There is no direct confirmation regarding the number of positive tests within the program, but the general understanding is that neither Tisdale nor Hawkins have contracted the virus and are forced to sit out because of contact tracing.
Medical experts should make the calls here, and if the recommendation calls for contact-traced isolation through the potential incubation period, then so be it. However, if a player or coach can test out of protocol after a negative test like at Texas A&M and Alabama, why can’t a player or coach that has only received negative results do the same?
As Ole Miss gears up to face Auburn on Saturday, there is no telling as to how many players are in isolation or how many will be available. It doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon but, and it goes unsaid, it would help if the Rebels had Tisdale, Hawkins and the other players who have tested negative on the field.