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We try to put a dollar figure on Coronavirus preparedness at Ole Miss

At $65 per test, things could get expensive quickly.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Uncertain. Unprecedent. Trying. Challenging.

You’ve undoubtedly heard those words far too many times in the last three months. Everyone is sick of hearing them and ready for the traditions of college football season. Who doesn’t want to be in the Grove, drinking with old friends, and stress eating about a game against Auburn?

Though there’s a lot we don’t know about what game day will look like, the Cup has broken out the trusty TI-81 calculator to try and figure out what COVID-19 is going to potentially cost the program. We’re not talking in terms of wins and losses or recruiting gains and misses, no sir, we’re talking cold hard cash.

For a college football season to be played in 2020, the NCAA, SEC, and state and local governments have put highly-regulated parameters in place to ensure safety for the student-athletes, staff and (potentially) fans. It seems as though each conference, university and state have all presented a variety of plans for returning back to some semblance of normalcy that are not consistent across the board, but the common theme lies in wanting to get the athletes back to campus and keeping their health at the forefront.

On May 20th, the NCAA announced that it would allow schools to bring its student-athletes back to campus for workouts starting June 1st. The Southeastern Conference followed up the governing body’s decision by permitting student-athletes back to campus for voluntary athletic activities beginning June 8th. Ole Miss, Athletic Director Keith Carter and Senior Associate Athletic Director for Health and Sports Performance Shannon Singletary worked tirelessly to put plans into motion that coincide with that timeline.

The first wave of Rebels returned to campus on June 1st and workouts began Monday.

In Oxford, efforts will focus on only the operations essential to preparing for the season. This includes “COVID-19 educational sessions; voluntary or required activities as allowed by NCAA; strength and conditioning; medical and rehabilitation treatment, and nutritional fueling operations,” per Carter. But these vague categories don’t attest to the full scope of mandatory precautions. This process will not be as simple as physical distancing or washing hands, as we’ve already seen across professional sports that have returned around the world and within the local facilities that have welcomed back the Rebels this week.

At the surface, Ole Miss has announced facility adaptations and operational restrictions, a screening process, education and accommodations for employees and student-athletes, PPE and cleaning supplies, workouts and training sessions that observe quarantine/isolation protocols, a testing program that includes antibody testing, contact tracing and hospital capability to treat all patients.

It’s going to be methodical, tedious and could potentially cost close to a seven-figure dollar amount. We are going off of generalities and making some assumptions, so the math may not be perfect, but it will be pretty close to a lower-end estimation.

The first defense against COVID-19 is simply wearing a mask. The Houston athletic department announced it will be ready to distribute 750 washable masks, 1,000 disposable masks and 4,000 gloves, but it expects to need five times that by the end of the football season. Going off of the Cougars’ estimation, that means a program will need 3,750 washable masks at $1.00 each, 5,000 disposable masks at $0.50 each, and 20,000 gloves at $0.16 per two gloves. The first line of protection totaled around $9,450 off the top.

Ole Miss Athletics

Add in around 30 sanitizer stations at no less than $100 each and at least 20 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer at $2,000, and it cost Ole Miss around $43,000 for sanitizer alone.

Estimated total: $52,450

Then, the student-athletes arrived on Monday and Friday. The SEC mandated a “3-stage screening process that involves screening before student-athletes arrive on campus, within 72 hours of entering athletics facilities and on a daily basis upon resumption of athletics activities.” Ole Miss screened for temperature on entrance to the facility before it administered Coronavirus tests to each player with the help of University of Mississippi Medical Center students.

Top-level medical infrared video temperature scanners cost $1,500 a pop. Ole Miss likely needed at least five posted at entrances to facilities for $7,500.

While utilizing UMMC students helped with the cost of additional staff, it doesn’t minimize the price of testing. This is where the budget will presumably see its greatest hit.

NCAA football programs are allowed 85 student-athletes per roster and Ole Miss lists 42 individuals on its staff website. Assuming that number is low and doesn’t include graduate assistants, sports information directors, trainers, and other behind-the-scenes personnel, we can low-ball estimate the total amount of people tested, with players included, at 250.

With the cost of a rapid-result PCR diagnostic test (the one you’re thinking of with the nose swab) landing in the ballpark of $65 per test, on the lower end, which meant at least $16,250 spent to get players and staff tested and in the door. That’s a one-time expense.

Estimated total: $76,200

The players are in the facilities and workouts began on Monday morning, but the testing is not done there. At Tulane, team doctor Greg Stewart is considering twice-a-week testing— a protocol that most, if not all, schools nationwide will follow once the traditional summer camp and fall season begins. Clemson has announced its plans to test with the same frequency. Ole Miss has not publicly stated its plan for testing, but it is safe to imagine that players will receive swab tests twice weekly.

Going off of the 85 players alone, to be tested two times a week from the beginning of the regular season on September 6 to the Egg Bowl on November 26 (including one test on the bye week) means 2,125 total tests for the year, costing $138,125. And that’s the most extreme bare minimum of testing for football only. To perform a requisite amount of testing across the athletic department, cost can soar to more than $400,000, Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West estimates.

Estimated total: $476,200

Carter and Singletary had also expressed their desire to administer the recently-regarded antibody tests to each player. These may be one-time blood tests, but they aren’t cheap.

For 85 players to receive the $119 antibody test once would cost another $10,115.

Estimated total: $486,315

Now, as the athletes and staff are on campus and workouts have begun, it’s about preventing the spread through the facilities that they will be in close contact with on a daily basis. Even prior to the pandemic, the University of Houston purchased and used a disinfectant fogger in the team weight room as a precaution against the flue. It is designed for one purpose— “to kill a virus,” says TJ Meagher, an associate athletic director at Houston.

This will quickly become a necessary norm for athletic programs nationwide. These foggers will be required between weight room sessions and dispel chemicals into the air that will settle on surfaces and (hopefully) eliminate any traces of the virus. They run $3,000 a piece and we assume that Ole Miss will need two, for $6,000.

Estimated total: $492,315

The Rebel administration also mentioned the idea of implementing contact tracing. This concept, on its most simple level, is an attempt to track the spread of COVID-19 by monitoring the people who have come in contact with a positive test. While only two tests have come back positive thus far, athletes will continue to test positive throughout the year.

The state of South Carolina implemented contact tracing early in the pandemic timeline and hired 1,800 additional workers who will follow up with everyone who was in contact with the population that tested positive. Dr. Anthony Fauci the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, pointed to the state as the model to follow. Ole Miss won’t need to hire anywhere near 1,800 employees, but it will have to focus the efforts of at least two staff members to trace contact. Student-athletes are “students first” after all, and thus, will be in class and on campus. At $13.00 an hour for 24 30-hour weeks, two additional ‘tracer employees’ will run $18,720. Again, we may be taking some liberties here, but this is our best go at a numerical figure as if we were running the show.

Estimated total: $511,035

As fans, there has to be a growing confidence this football season will come to fruition in some state or form. Positive tests are going to happen, but it may be better to have those positive tests now than during the season. Imagine having players test positive after a game has been played and what that would mean in terms of a potential quarantine for any player who was in close contact.

Now, there is the reality that high level athletes aged 18-22 are not going to necessarily have to be hospitalized from this virus, but clearly if that were to happen, the assumed costs of hospital stays would reach the thousands and potentially tens of thousands very quickly.

These estimates only really scratch the surface of how this pandemic could ultimately affect the budget for Ole Miss and college athletic departments everywhere. If there is widespread screening required to enter a stadium, how many more employees would be needed? When will they be trained? What equipment is needed and how much will it cost?

Additionally, there is no way the Grove will resemble the general free for all bacchanalia it is typically remembered for by fans. Added security, potential social distancing requirements, and maybe even capacity limitations may require further expenses to help keep gameday as safe as possible.

Then there’s always the Cup’s theory that enough bourbon will probably kill just about any disease or illness. Estimated cost: $30-$100, depending on your standards. Cheers.