Athletes account for over half of Stanford’s student COVID-19 cases

Oct. 27, 2020, 11:22 p.m.

Of the 45 positive COVID-19 cases recorded among undergraduate and graduate students on Stanford’s campus, 29 are student-athletes. Thirteen of those are football players, according to Stanford Athletics Communications Director Scott Swegan. Twelve students are currently in isolation on campus.

Swegan told The Daily that student-athletes participating in contact practices receive “polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing three times per week,” in addition to the football program’s daily antigen testing. This combined testing strategy follows “the County of Santa Clara’s most recent guidance for collegiate athletics.”

In the event that a Stanford student-athlete tests positive, they are required to stay in their designated residence for a 14-day isolation period, according to Assistant Athletics Director Brian Risso. During that time, they report vitals daily using a thermometer and pulse oximeter, provided by the school, while participating in telehealth services with their athletic trainer and team physician. Contact tracing is initiated to identify and remove other likely affected athletes from sport participation. 

The football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams have had the opportunity to reside on campus for the past few weeks, but many student-athletes live off-campus due to University restrictions on housing availability. Athletes and coaches adhere to the state, county and University guidelines, and abide by restrictions on equipment sharing. Stanford plans to bring all athletes back in the winter, and they will reside in Mirrielees, Suites or a nearby hotel. 

In an interview with The Daily, Yvonne Maldonado, professor of pediatrics, epidemiology and population health, speculated that athletes’ congregate living setup and social networks may have resulted in an increased frequency of cases within their on-campus population.

“It’s possible that people could be transmitting within their own households, for example, and that those could be additional risk factors,” Maldonado said. As a result, athletes have “more exposure to one another, to other athletes, if they are at practice or training.”

According to Tim Meyer, head physician for the German national men’s soccer team, the “risk situation is not on the pitch but around it.” In May, the German Bundesliga became one of the first professional sports leagues to return amid the pandemic.

Meyer and his associates have learned that “regulations for interaction in dressing rooms, showers and after training are much more important than forbidding soccer.”

He added that points of contact in soccer are “very few and very short,” in contrast to contact sports such as football and basketball, in an email to The Daily. This logic has been supported by other sports analysts who believe that the main risk of transmission between players does not occur during the games themselves, but instead during personal events such as house parties or team dinners.

Many professional sports have been playing in a bubble, where athletes live, practice and play in isolation. One such professional league is the NBA, which concluded its season this month. The basketball league was based out of Walt Disney World, and Leroy Sims ’01 organized and directed the bubble as its medical director. Over three months, the NBA played 172 games with zero positive coronavirus cases. 

David Shaw, Stanford’s head football coach, acknowledged the successes of the NBA bubble during a press conference on Oct. 13, but also mentioned, “That’s not possible [at Stanford] with student-athletes that have scholastic responsibilities, etc. … Baseball, [the MLB], didn’t create a bubble, so they had more issues — which is just understandable.”

“You can’t completely stay away from this virus, so you’re going to have an issue here or there,” he said. “But you can be as smart, as safe and as consistent as possible.”

Arkansas State University managed to closely replicate a “bubble” situation among athletes in the summer by separating team members from the general student population and screening them aggressively, according to Shane Speights, dean of the NYIT Medical School in Arkansas and head of Arkansas State’s testing protocols.

“Everyone took it seriously and most workouts and training took place socially distanced with masks when possible,” Speights wrote in an email to The Daily. “There was little ‘mingling’ of the athletes with others in the community outside of practice and workouts. … The fact of being a student-athlete does not independently put them at risk, it’s the activities that they participate in and how those activities occur that does.”

Arkansas State University required symptomatic individuals to isolate immediately, even in the absence of a test result. Speights ties the screening approach to fallibilities in testing. Since a percentage of tests yield a false negative, Speights and his colleagues preferred to take the safer path when a player demonstrated classic COVID-19 symptoms.

The leadup to Stanford football’s first game on Nov. 7 at Oregon raises questions on the health and safety of both the players and the limited attendees. The questions arises in part on the basis of results from southeastern conferences, primarily the SEC, that have seen rising coronavirus cases both among players and the general student body.

“Both groups of participants on each team have tested negative for the virus, so blocking, tackling, high-fiving, those things are all doable now,” Shaw said of the potential for spread in games. “We have to be smart and wise about how we spread ourselves out to a certain degree, but I think there’s also a comfort level to know that, at the very least, that day we tested negative — so we’ll be able to operate.” 

Speights notes that a significant increase in cases was observed in Arkansas State University when students returned to campus for the academic year and athletes began traveling to games. 

“Anytime you put any group in a confined space (conference room, bus, plane, etc.) with limited air circulation, and just one person is infected and doesn’t know it, you are going to significantly increase the risk for viral transmission to other people nearby,” he wrote. “Nationally, this is one of the concerns we have for the fall/winter time frame. Colder weather will force people inside where the virus can spread more readily.”

Activities for men’s water polo, women’s basketball programs, and both soccer teams were previously postponed as multiple members of each team were quarantined, according to Risso. Water polo was postponed before women’s basketball, which was before soccer. Risso maintains, however, that health and safety are the top priorities of his department. Shaw said that COVID-19 travel precautions for football games are still being planned.

“I think everyone realizes that we have to operate differently,” Shaw said. “It’s a huge, huge deal to orchestrate, but we are having conversations now about what numbers should that be.”

On Sept. 24 the Pac-12 announced the return of football and subsequently released an abbreviated schedule, which is set to kick off on Nov. 7. To prepare for the season, the football team opened a training camp in San Mateo county, due to stricter public health precautions on campus. The Cardinal, however, returned to on-campus practice after Santa Clara County moved from California’s red tier to the less-restrictive orange tier

Jeremy Rubin and Ujwal Srivastava contributed reporting.

Contact Hannah Basali at hbasali ‘at’ and Jodie Meng at jomeng ‘at’

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