The NCAA’s chief medical officer and two of its infectious disease expert advisers warned Thursday the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus throughout the United States remains an enormous obstacle for college sports to overcome.
“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory.
Del Rio, a member of the NCAA's COVID-19 advisory panel, appeared with NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline on a webinar hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
In all, four Bowl Subdivision conferences are pointing toward trying to make a spring football season work. Six others say they are still planning a fall season, including the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 — more than three-dozen big schools from New York to Texas.
“We need to focus on what’s important,” Del Rio said. "What’s important right now is we need to control this virus. Not having fall sports this year, in controlling this virus, would be to me, the No. 1 priority.”
College sports administrators and coaches have been making the case that schools are providing structured environments with frequent testing and strict protocols that make athletes safer than the general population.
Hainline said 1%-2% of college athletes who have been tested by schools have been positive for COVID-19.
The NCAA Tournament and other college sports sports were canceled in the spring because of the surging pandemic. Hainline said he hoped by now testing and surveillance nationally would have led to the virus being better contained.
“That hasn’t happened, and it’s made it very challenging to make decisions,” he said.
Del Rio pointed to Georgia, where Emory is located, as an example of a state where the virus is spreading at a troubling rate. He said the state is at 30 cases per 100,000 people, but the goal should be 10 or fewer.
“If we can get there, we can do a lot of things,” Del Rio said.
Concerns about an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis and the uncertainty about its long-term effects in some COVID-19 patients were cited by the Big Ten and Pac-12 as one of the reasons for shutting down fall sports. Hainline said he was aware of about 12 virus-related cases of myocarditis among college athletes.
“We are playing with fire," Dr. Colleen Kraft, a professor and infectious disease expert at Emory and the NCAA's advisory panel, said of myocarditis.
The United States has had more than 5 million COVID-19 cases.
“Essentially our population has been preventing us from going back to college athletics because we are not controlling this pandemic, because people don’t want to do the basic hygiene things that control transmission,” Kraft said.