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Hawkeye football team deals with stringent COVID-19 protocols on first road trip

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This will be the strangest road trip ever for the Iowa football team.

Anyone hoping to travel for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Purdue must be cleared by a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 on Friday morning. History shows there will likely be two or three people who test positive for the coronavirus who might not actually have it. They will be left behind, nevertheless.

Hawkeye players will head straight to their hotel rooms upon arrival in West Lafayette, Indiana, already having been checked in, in order to have minimal contact with staffers there. Team meals will be consumed on-site so that no one risks exposure to the coronavirus at a local restaurant.

On Saturday morning, everyone participating in the game or who will be in contact with those who are — players, coaches, trainers, officials, even the bus drivers — will get the by-now-familiar nasal swab and wait 15 minutes to see if it reveals a negative test for COVID-19. Those who pass will head to Ross-Ade Stadium, where the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers will finally kickoff their Big Ten Conference season.

Again, there is the probability that someone will test positive initially with no possibility of waiting for a PCR test to confirm that. That means they will have to stay at the hotel.

So hold your breath, Hawkeye fans. And don’t expect to see every player in uniform when you tune in to the Big Ten Network to watch the game. That’s the nature of the protocol the league is using in order to try to play football during a pandemic.

Before the Iowa Hawkeyes can take to the football field for scenes like this this season, they have to go through some stringent COVID-19 protocols set up the Big Ten Conference.

“I don't think anybody has got a better system in place right now, including in the NFL, than what we have,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week.

“That being said, there's no guarantees on this thing.”

The Big Ten Conference hired Biodesix to handle daily COVID-19 testing of its football players and on-field personnel starting Sept. 30. That company dispatched seven workers to Iowa, where “testing has gone really smoothly,” reports Andy Peterson, the Hawkeyes’ team physician.

The routine for the Hawkeyes has been to practice in the mornings, then shuttle the 170 people directly involved in those practices through rapid antigen screening for COVID-19. But those results are not entirely accurate.

“There are very few false negatives, so you can be confident that a negative is a negative,” said Jim Torner, a professor of epidemiology at Iowa who is serving as the chief infection officer for the athletic department and is required to report all results to the Big Ten each evening. “But out of every 100 tests administered, you can expect two or three to come back positive. And that’s what we’ve been seeing.”

The rapid tests are not FDA-approved as a diagnostic for COVID-19. So no one is considered to actually be positive unless a follow-up PCR test (polymerase chain reaction) confirms that. Those tests are the responsibility of the Iowa athletic department, not Biodesix, and get sent to the university hospital, which can provide results within six hours.

A confirmed positive means the person must isolate for 10 days, at which time they must be fever-free for 24 hours before being cleared. For coaches or other on-field personnel, that would be the end of the ordeal. For the athletes, it’s only the halfway mark.

The Big Ten, unlike other leagues, is also requiring followup cardiac testing for its players, a four-day process that concludes with an MRI of the heart. After that is a seven-day return-to-play protocol, meaning the earliest any athlete can return to competition after getting COVID-19 is 21 days.

The Big Ten is doing this because it is not yet known what percentage of COVID-19 sufferers will develop myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart wall that can be caused by viruses. The league is establishing a cardiac registry in order to research the subject.

“A lot of the aspects could be considered overkill,” Peterson said of what the Big Ten is doing. “But this is a very robust protocol.”

The Hawkeyes will confront the most controversial aspect of the protocol Friday. That is the rapid testing done just before a team gets ready to travel, with no way for anyone who gets a false positive test to participate in the next day’s game.

Peterson said that stipulation was put into the protocol because not every Big Ten school can turn around PCR tests as quickly as Iowa can. Some schools must wait a day or two for those results. So, out of fairness, the league decided on a policy that treats everyone the same.

Iowa will report any COVID-19 positives Friday to the Big Ten, as usual. Whether that number will be made public is unknown. The league has said it will set up a dashboard that will reveal coronavirus numbers for each team, but it has yet to do so.

There have been 253 cases of COVID-19 reported in the Iowa athletic department since testing began five months ago. The Hawkeyes halted practices when 93 of those occurred the week students returned to school, but numbers have leveled off since. There were only six positive tests reported last week, out of 660 administered. Peterson said no one who has tested positive so far has required hospitalization.

But Peterson cautions there are no guarantees that all Big Ten football games will be played this fall. Games have been postponed throughout the country when COVID-19 cases spike on a particular team.

“You’re just playing the odds. There’s going to be outbreaks. There’s going to be games that have to be canceled. Hopefully not too many, but I would expect some,” Peterson said.

“It really depends on what’s happening in the community. If a community is really dedicated to making sure that there are football games being played, the best thing that community can do is make sure they’re wearing masks in public and doing a good job of preventing risk within the population. That’s the biggest risk by far.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.