Arkansas State University was scheduled to play the University of Central Arkansas today.
Instead, the Red Wolves and Bears will play Oct. 10 after ASU announced Tuesday that it was unable to “field a safe number of players among a depleted position group.” Coming into the season, this was one of the biggest question marks tor the Red Wolves.
What happens when a team can’t field enough linemen? Or linebackers? Or quarterbacks? Or defensive backs?
Postponements and cancellations happen.
In Arkansas State’s case, the Red Wolves had 15 players on its depth chart “unavailable” for their game against Kansas State a week ago, but were still able to play. It’s unclear which position group was depleted this week, or how many of those players were positive covid-19 cases, had been affected by contact tracing or normal injuries.
“I think if we had the same number of cases as we have now, contact traced and tested positive, spread over the entire team, we would have just moved forward,” ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said. “I think it’s easy when you first see the news to think that there’s a huge outbreak, but understanding how quarantining works and direct contacting works, you can have one case that results in a lot of direct contacts, and that can cause a problem.”
Damphousse alludes to what was and still is one of the biggest concerns surrounding the season — contact tracing. According to Damphousse and ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, contact tracing played a major role in today’s game being postponed.
“You feel bad for the students,” Mohajir said. “Sometimes they get contact traced, and they didn’t know they were getting contact traced. Not everyone understands how that works.”
Contact tracing has become the equivalent to a knockout punch for college football teams. Some programs aren’t showing a high number of positive cases, but will have dozens of players miss practice and games due to being in close contact with as few as one positive person. And it doesn’t matter if those close contact players test negative for the next several days.
This has led to confusion on what actually goes into contact tracing. Dr. Shane Speights, who is the site dean at Arkansas State for the New York Institute of Technology, said contact tracing can be summed up into two variables: 6 feet and 15 minutes.
“If you have an individual that’s positive and they were in contact with someone in less than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes — regardless of whether they were wearing a mask — that person is considered a close contact,” said Speights, who oversees ASU’s testing and contact tracing. “And that close contact has to quarantine for 14 days. You’re out for 14 days.”
But why does the university and the state health department have to contact trace athletes if they’re being tested on a regular basis?
“The reason that we do that from a public health standpoint is because we know the virus can take some time to reproduce and actually start showing symptoms. And the time frame is between two and 14 days,” Speights said. “And the CDC has said that those individuals that are positive contact need to be quarantined for 14 days regardless of your test result. You could test negative on day five of your quarantine, but you may be positive on day seven or day eight.”
According to Arkansas Department of Health epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha, when someone contracts the virus, it often doesn’t appear right away, which leads to difficult tracing. Dillaha said “right after someone has been exposed, they are likely to have a negative test.”
“The virus moves. This is not like taking a pregnancy test where if you’re positive, you’re going to be positive for a while,” he said. “The virus will migrate down your throat and into your lungs. It’ll get to the point where once it’s migrated, you want to pick it up in the nose. So when you’re positive for covid, you’re only positive for a few days. Even though you’re still sick, the virus has moved.”
This leads to the rigorous questioning of those who have tested positive to find out who they may have been in close contact with over the course of the 14 days prior to testing positive. The person who tests positive is asked to compile a list of anyone who they might have been in close contact with, and oftentimes anyone on that list will have to quarantine for 14 days.
“Once I understood what the ramifications were of a positive test and then the assessment of direct contact and the difference between isolation and quarantine, I became concerned especially about the quarantine part,” Damphousse said. “Quarantine is 14 days if you’ve been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive. And there’s no testing out of quarantine. You can test out of isolation. You can be back in 10 days.”
When Damphousse says “there’s no testing out of quarantine,” he busts a certain myth: If a person tests every single day — similar to the NFL, which is testing every day but gamedays — then it could eliminate contact tracing.
Dillaha and Speights said this isn’t necessarily true, and that testing every day isn’t exactly financially realistic for many universities.
“It doesn’t change the contact tracing,” Dillaha said. “What it does is it changes the length of time in which someone would have to be in quarantine.”
It can reduce the number of those contact traced because of the extra time given, Speights said.
“If I test everybody every day, I’m still going to have to say to those who tested positive, ‘OK, who were you in contact with?’ That’s still going to be a layer because these guys aren’t in a bubble,” Speights said. “They’re going to the cafeteria, they’re still going out to eat, they’re still going to the grocery store and that kind of stuff. The more testing you can do, the better for sure.
“However, I don’t think it completely eliminates contact tracing. It probably reduces the number of individuals you can identify because you’re going to be able to identify positives sooner, but you still have to contact trace a positive.”
And this doesn’t change with the type of testing, either. Some believe that rapid antigen tests are the solution, but other than providing results within an hour, the antigen tests are typically used on individuals who are showing symptoms and are more likely to produce false negatives, according to Speights and Dillaha.
Arkansas State currently uses PCR tests, which often take 24 hours for results, provided by the state health department. Speights and Dillaha say these tests are the “gold standard” among all covid-19 tests. The NFL also uses PCR tests.
The Big Ten, which announced it would return to football in late October, will have its athletes undergo daily antigen testing and follow up with a PCR test if an individual is contact traced or showing symptoms. Speights and Dillaha agree this a good solution to mitigating the spread of the virus, but say few universities have the resources to do what the Big Ten is planning.
As of right now, ASU has no intentions of changing the type of test or its testing policy for its athletes. In accordance with the Sun Belt Conference and the NCAA, ASU is required to test once a week, 72 hours before competition. This week, the Red Wolves postponed its game a day before even testing, with individuals showing symptoms Tuesday morning and the contact tracing that ensued.
“People have asked me if that was a tough decision to make, and I would say it was a disappointing decision to make, but it was a very easy decision to make once I heard Coach [Anderson] felt we couldn’t do this safely,” Damphousse said. “The safety of our players has to be of paramount importance. Canceling a game is not an easy thing to do, especially coming off a big win.”
Arkansas State is confident it’ll play next week against Tulsa, but the virus is unpredictable. The Red Wolves can only control what they can control.
And the virus, in many ways, is uncontrollable.
“We’re all resilient,” Damphousse said. “And a tough day today can be overcome with a great day tomorrow.”