Athletics focused on student health amidst COVID-19 spikes

Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor

With all practices suspended due to recent spikes in COVID-19 cases, the athletic department is determined to ensure the safety of all student athletes as they plan for the future. 

Practices for all athletic teams were suspended on Sept. 16 as cases on campus surged, with many positives occurring on athletic teams. However, director of athletics Angel Mason said the cases were likely not related to practices themselves. 

“This seems to be more on a social side,” Mason said. “One way or another, student athletes and teammates are also part of each other’s social circle, so what they do, how they engage with one another away from the training sessions or sport venue is also another part that we have to try and maintain as much as possible.” 

Mason said a big part of her belief that practices were not the issue comes from the fact that while baseball, softball, volleyball and football all reported numerous cases, other sports did not. With every team following identical protocol, this discrepancy would point to some other component affecting results, according to Mason. 

Baseball head coach David Beasley supported this idea, saying he believed none of Berry’s cases, athletic or otherwise, came from structured settings such as practice or classroom, but rather from social occasions during students’ free time. He said that Berry’s administration has been doing an excellent job with COVID-19 guidelines and procedures, but these only work when students respect them. 

“The protocols are only as good as the people that are obeying them,” Beasley said. “We have to do a better job of social distancing when we’re after practices, when we’re in the dorms, when we go to eat. You can social distance all day, and then if you go to a restaurant and don’t social distance, you don’t maintain the proper space, then it does no good.” 

Despite these beliefs, Mason said the athletic department is nevertheless constantly reviewing its protocols and will only allow practice to resume when they are convinced it is safe to do so. 

“When we get some direct information from our medical professionals, we’re going to take all of that and then put in place how we will return,” Mason said. “That’s where we are right now. My hope is that we’ll be able to have some stuff written down and begin to move to return practices in the next week or so.” 

With many student athletes currently infected with the virus, a big part of the department’s focus has also turned to the safe reintegration of these players once they are no longer COVID-19 positive. Ginger Swann, assistant athletic director for sports medicine, said this is a challenge, as there is still a lot that is unknown about potential long-term complications. 

“I think the CDC and other people are researching the short and long-term effects of it, but when it comes down to it we still don’t know yet because there really hasn’t been a long-term yet to be able to kind of compare to,” Swann said. 

Mason said one of the biggest priorities right now is to ensure everyone is informed. This not only includes the medical teams getting access to the latest information and sharing it with the appropriate personnel, but also letting students know of the potential risk so as to allow them to make an informed decision on their participation. 

An important aspect of that, according to Swann, is team physicians, who are in charge of coordinating and obtaining information. 

“We rely a lot on our team physicians,” Swann said. “They are very educated, and the cool thing is that they are not trying to have all the answers themselves. They do a lot of research, they do a lot of consultation with cardiologists and other different doctors where it comes into play where this stuff is important, so it’s really a team approach where we’re trying to get the best information possible to give the best possible care to our student athletes.” 

Beasley said that, as a coach, he was confident about the safety of his players once he learned of the medical team’s plans. 

“They will not be able to join us back until they get cleared, and I’m not necessarily saying a negative COVID test,” Beasley said. “Just because they have a negative COVID test and they don’t have COVID anymore does not mean they return to play. They have to go through the protocols, which is a step by step process that the medical field put out, and we will walk through that.” 

Beasley also said that a positive aspect of this process is that there is no need to fast-track a student athlete’s return. 

“I know for a fact nobody is rushing them back, nobody’s trying to get them back on the field quick or back on the court quick,” Beasley said. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure they’re healthy, they’re well, they’re fully over the COVID and we can move forward knowing their health is safe.” 

Swann said this return would look different for every student, as team physicians will assess every athlete based on their personal medical records. 

“Our docs will go through each individual and go through a review,” Swann said. “They will see what the scenario is for that specific individual and then determine what they need at that point, so it’s not going to be just a cookie-cutter approach. If a student athlete needs more testing, they’re going to go that route.” 

And because the decision ultimately rests with the medical staff, Mason said the players should expect a lengthy process. 

“It’s not coaches that are determining when their kid comes back; it’s not even a student saying I’m prepared to come back,” Mason said. “ Medical professionals are saying we feel confident, with all of these boxes that we’ve checked, that you can begin to phase back into play. And right now, that is not a quick process because we don’t know so much. On average, you’re looking at somewhere between a three-to-four-week process for someone testing positive. That’s more time than someone returning from a concussion.” 

Mason also said that these precautions will not end once a player returns to practice, as they will continue to monitor them even once they have been cleared. 

“It’s not like when they return they get to go full competition,” Mason said. “Just like we do with our return to play for concussions, you can start with some light activity and we’ll monitor and see how you’re doing. You can add in some other activity; we’ll monitor and see how you’re doing, to work up to being able to be a full practice participant.” 

And as with most COVID-19-related changes this semester, Mason said any decisions the department makes will be under constant review so as to ensure student safety. 

“It’s going to be continuing to adjust as we learn and know more,” Mason said. “And the primary things are communication. As we know more, we will make sure that we’re updating more, that the students will have a choice in how they choose to be engaged or not. Our primary focus is making sure that we’re mitigating risk as much as possible and that we’re not putting any of our students in a position to where we are part of doing harm.” 

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