Testing technology key to Big Ten’s plan to play football this fall

The Big Ten is banking on a daily testing regimen allowing its football teams to play nine games in nine weeks starting next month without spreading the coronavirus or risking heart issues for its players.

Ohio State hopes that means a return to the College Football Playoff for the Buckeyes, who were No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason poll.

“It’s not easy for 19- and 20-year-old young men that go through this and they did,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said of the wait to see if the fall season would be reinstated after being postponed in early August. “The culture was never more evident, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Ohio State president Kristina Johnson and director of athletics Gene Smith referred to the ability to use an antigen test for COVID-19 on players, coaches and staff prior to every practice and game as the catalyst for the conference’s chancellors and presidents voting to allow football teams to start playing games Oct. 23-24.

“As you may know, my background is I’m an engineer and a scientist,” said Johnson, who officially took her post Sept. 1. “So when I look at the data, first of all, what’s changed is that the rapid testing of a few months ago, even when the whole COVID (pandemic) started, was very accurate with regard to false negatives but not very accurate with regard to false positives. You have to have both. We’re looking at tests now are 98, 99% accurate.”

That is important because it allows a quick turnaround compared to the more prevalent polymerase chain reaction tests that can take a day or more to process but are considered the gold standard as far as accuracy.

While PCR tests have been widely used since early in the pandemic that hit the United States in March, speedy, accurate antigen tests have only received approval for use in the past few weeks.

“I do believe we will have clean playing fields with no athletes on those fields that have COVID,” said Johnson, who credited Smith and Day for establishing and implementing protocols for the team designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus since the team returned to campus for voluntary workouts in June. “Our tests have been very low — very, very low in that cohort. And as a campus, we saw initial spikes when the students came back and it’s been consistently going down.”

Smith said he shared her confidence in being able to keep COVID off the practice and playing fields but acknowledged players are still at risk of contracting it off the field.

“No question about it, but we have a way to deal with that,” Smith said. “What’s nice about our environment is our student-athletes are self-policing. They have created a bubble for themselves, and so I’m highly confident that our team will continue to do what they’ve been doing and we’ll work through that. But I’m hopeful that all teams in our league can minimize the number of positives they have.”

Those who have positive tests confirmed will be sidelined for at least 21 days and be monitored for myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that is rare but can be life-threatening if not caught.

“There is a protocol within our protocols about when they can return,” Johnson said. “When they need to get tested for myocarditis, and if an athlete who gets COVID then does express myocarditis, then they’re out for the season. So I think those sorts of things -- the detail of the work that was done over the last month -- really gave comfort to myself and my peers.”

Johnson and Smith both credited the work of Dr. James Borchers, an Alter High School graduate who is the Ohio State football team physician and served as co-chair of the medical subcommittee on the Return To Competition Task Force the Big Ten established after postponing its fall seasons Aug. 8.

Appearing on a video conference conducted by the Big Ten Network, Borchers said the time that passed since that day allowed the medical team to learn more about the virus, how it can affect the hearts of those who catch it and how to monitor for potential heart damage were all key in developing a plan to convince conference leadership games can be played this fall.

“We know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions by near 100%,” Borchers said. “We can never say 100%, but we feel very confident that with that approach we’ll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can with this testing approach."

Day, who was vocal in his belief the fall season should not be scrapped in August and publicly last week why the Buckeyes were sidelined while other major conference schools planned to play, shared the optimism of his bosses and Borchers.

“The three things — the data-driven approach, the testing and the cardiac protocol is really excellent,” Day said. "I’m excited for the players because they never lost faith. They never lost trust, and their behavior through this time has been excellent.

“They never stopped fighting, and it was during a time that was very, very uncertain, but now they get the opportunity they asked for, which was to safely compete for a championship and get back into the CFP picture. So many of them after they left the fields last year against Clemson, that’s what they a really really wanted."

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