SEC announces medical protocols for football, fall sports

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Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, talks to the media before the quaterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee. - Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America/TNS

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The SEC plans to test athletes for COVID-19 up to three times per week during the 2020 football season, according to protocols announced Friday by the league office.

The conference will require football players test at least twice weekly during competition, typically six days and three days prior to a game. A medical task force formed amid the coronavirus pandemic also recommends schools look to provide a third test able to produce reliable, rapid results during a time frame closer to competition.

Tests costs can vary, but Orlando area rapid results currently cost an average of $140 to $180. These costs will place additional financial strain on athletic departments already bracing for monetary losses caused by the spread of the highly transmissible virus.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the current standard testing method for the COVID-19 virus and will be conducted by a third-party provider.

“Our medical task force is producing an effective strategy for testing and monitoring, which complements the vigilant day-to-day efforts of our campuses to establish and maintain healthy environments in which our student-athletes can train and compete,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement.

The SEC’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force has met since April to set safety protocol. COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 4.8 million Americans and led to more than 157,000 deaths.

Younger people in good health are at a lower risk than the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions, but they can easily contract and spread the virus if exposed to it, even without showing symptoms. And some younger people with no pre-existing conditions have experienced significant health problems after testing positive for COVID-19.

Face coverings, frequent hand washing and maintaining six feet of distance from other people can significantly mitigate the illness’ spread.

Given those measures, many wonder how a contact sport like football can be safely played without leading to an outbreak within the team and possibly throughout a university campus or the community at large.

Volleyball and soccer players will receive a PCR test at least twice weekly during competition, with one to occur three days prior to the first competition of the week. Cross-country runners will be tested at least once per week, with that test to occur three days prior to each race.

Football, volleyball, cross country and soccer coaches, staff and non-competing personnel will be required to wear face coverings on the sideline and observe physical distancing to the extent possible. Cross-country runners will be required to wear a face covering at the starting line, and can remove it when proper distancing has been achieved.

The SEC will require each of the league’s 14 member institutions to designate a COVID-19 Protocol Oversight Officer responsible for educating teams and ensuring compliance with the SEC guidelines.

Due to the fluid nature of the situation, the task force will continue to review and update requirements and testing strategies. The SEC anticipates providing a preseason report by Aug. 31.

The football season is schedule to begin Sept. 26; the start dates of the other fall sports have yet to be announced.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)