When the Pac-12 unanimously voted to delay the football season and all other fall sports until spring, the lack of rapid-response testing for the novel coronavirus was central to the conference’s decision.
Less than a month later, a breakthrough in testing may have quelled those concerns, leaving the door open for a possible return to sports for the Pac-12 earlier than expected.
Pac-12 announced that it will provide daily COVID-19 testing for conference athletes, after partnering with Quidel Corp., a manufacturer of FDA-approved rapid tests. These tests, according to the Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott, will allow the results to be read in 15 minutes, which will allow us to know “every day, before each practice or athletics game that all participants tested negative for COVID-19” .
That immediate access to the results, Scott said, is “just a change in the rules of the game.”
“It is a big step for the return of safe sports competition in the Pac-12,” he added.
But Scott also cautioned that a return to competition involves several other considerations, including approval from state health officials. Six Pac-12 schools, including USC and UCLA, do not currently have approval to return to direct contact practices, and as such Scott was hesitant to offer more than a weak suggestion of a return timeline, allowing only that he now “has hope” that there might be a way for Pac-12 sports to begin before January 1.
“We’ve been coming back to the game in a very measured and considerate way,” Scott said. “[We have said] all along that we are going to let data and science drive us and that we need to have a high degree of confidence that by playing again we will not be encouraging the spread and putting student-athletes into increased risk as a result of that competition. This ability to have daily tests with immediate results is a big step forward for us ”.
Those rapid tests should be accessible by early October, Scott said, with Quidel planning to distribute its Sofia 2 test machines to every Pac-12 member school later this month. The cost of those tests remains “confidential,” but will be covered by the member schools, he said.
It remains to be seen how the conference will unfold, once the new rapid test protocols are underway. Scott reiterated Thursday that it will take at least six weeks before Pac-12 schools can safely start a season, suggesting a start in mid-November – or perhaps on Thanksgiving weekend – it may be the earliest possible window to open a season this fall.
But any such start would involve the cooperation of public health officials and a reduced level of community outreach in both California and Oregon, where restrictions remain strict.
An earlier than expected start would also ideally include the Big Ten, with whom Scott said he has been in regular contact. The Pac-12 sees it as a “high priority” to align with the Big Ten in any new football program, whether it be this fall or spring.
Both conferences have been under fire since early last month, when the Pac-12 followed the Big Ten’s lead to postpone the season. While the rest of the Five Powers have continued to push for a fall start, criticism of the respective decisions of the two conferences has been constant ever since, with coaches, players and parents questioning the reasoning behind it.
The lack of access to daily and rapid tests was a particularly powerful reason for that postponement, one that Scott said he did not believe would be resolved until at least November.
With such testing protocols now within reach much faster than expected, Scott and two members of the Pac-12 medical advisory board defended the conference’s initial decision to postpone the season.
“The opportunity to be able to do daily testing helps alleviate several of the concerns we had before,” said Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon Associate Director of Sports Medicine. “But at that time, we didn’t have the ability to do daily tests at the points of care and we didn’t see it on the horizon. This is clearly a new development. “
Added Dr. Kim Harmon of Washington: “I think the Pac-12 did well, considering the science.”
Several concerns remain. Harmon explained that Pac-12 still has no control over whether athletes recovering from COVID-19 are at high risk of heart inflammation known as myocarditis. The director of sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania was somewhat upset Thursday for suggesting that a third of the 10 great athletes who recovered from the virus showed some form of myocarditis, a claim that he later retracted in a statement.
An answer to those questions could be on the horizon. Pac-12 has partnered with Harvard on a research study to collect all available data on the cardiac impact of the virus. Preliminary results should be available “within a month or two,” Harmon said.
“It’s a dynamic situation, one step at a time,” Scott said. “But based on what we knew in mid-August, I think everyone is confident in the decision we made.”