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Post Testing, safety protocols welcome Dawgs back to Athens

Monday June 8, 2020

Georgia’s players and staffers have made their way back to Athens in time to begin voluntary workouts on June 8th. Before the workouts, everyone received a SARS-CoV-2 test regardless of symptoms. There’s a protocol for positive tests, and players will be divided into smaller groups during workouts to minimize exposure. There’s always a risk in any group activity during a pandemic, but Georgia’s staff and administrators have clearly put thought and effort into minimizing the risk.

Georgia’s policy to test everyone is in line with many programs seeking to resume activity, but there is no universal policy or requirement to test across college football. Conferences will try to establish some loose frameworks, but member schools are still governed by state and local orders.

It shouldn’t be alarming or surprising to discover that some players test positive. We’ve seen confirmed cases in just about every sport that has resumed activity. European soccer teams, MLS teams, and Japanese baseball teams have all reported positive tests. We shouldn’t expect college football to be different, and it would be no surprise to learn that Georgia’s testing discovered a couple of cases.

Several college teams (Marshall, Oklahoma State, Arkansas State, and Alabama) have already identified new cases through their initial testing. Tellingly, the majority of these cases are described as asymptomatic. It’s possible that the infections would have gone undetected had the players remained at home. It’s also realistic that these hidden infections would have been unknowingly transmitted to teammates had all players not been tested. Programs that only test symptomatic individuals risk that scenario.

Another consideration for universal testing is the communities to which these players are returning.

Clarke County has had just over 300 confirmed cases, and there have only been two COVID-19 deaths reported since April 16. With the University largely shuttered and the students sent home, Athens is smaller and more isolated than we’re used to. Athens isn’t a waypoint on major trade and travel routes; the closest interstate highway is 20 miles away. You have to want to go to Athens. Ordinarily that’s not an issue. Now the events, concerts, and culture that draw us to Athens are canceled or limited in capacity.

That isolation left Athens to serve primarily its full-time residents as well as the surrounding counties. The healthcare system in Athens is the hub of a 17-county system, and several of those counties don’t even have a hospital bed. The concern early in the pandemic was that outbreaks in those counties would overwhelm the hospital capacity in Athens, but that hasn’t happened. Larger northeast Georgia outbreaks in Hall and Habersham counties were handled within other systems, and the Athens area has dodged, for now, the fate of southwest Georgia.

Now student-athletes from across the state (and out of state) will descend on Athens. Isolating any who test positive right away will help prevent the possibility of a larger outbreak in an area that has avoided them. The positive cases can be isolated, monitored, and safely returned to activity without risk to teammates, staffers, or others out in the community with whom they’ll come in contact. These cases can be cleared or treated now – three months before the season is scheduled to start.

Of course a positive or negative test this week is just a snapshot in time. Players will begin to interact with each other, staff, and people around Athens – each with their own contact history. If the University reopens for on-campus instruction, you’ll have the same issue of importing cases on a much larger scale. It’s not realistic for a similar testing protocol to cover the entire UGA community. Players will need to continue to be tested throughout the summer. As the season approaches there will need to be more formal standards as teams begin to travel and compete. A positive test at any time brings the same risks as it does now. That volume and frequency of testing is necessary but expensive.

Summer workouts aren’t practice, and policies for that phase are still to be determined. Certainly the experiences of schools during this first phase will inform what comes next. The preseason period might even be lengthened to allow for re-acclimation after the long downtime. For now, the Dawgs are all back on campus and doing a modified form of what they’d usually be doing this time of year. It’s a necessary and positive small step towards a season this fall, and we’re glad to see this milestone.

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