Since it began testing student-athletes for COVID-19 on June 15, Oregon State has conducted more than 500 tests and seen just three positive results.
Of the three athletes who tested positive, all have since tested negative and resumed training.
Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s senior associate athletic director for sports medicine, admits that there is a bit of luck behind that number — confirmed cases in Benton County have remained relatively low since the pandemic began, and OSU hasn’t had to navigate around massive statewide outbreaks like other schools have.
But it is also due, in large part, to a thorough, preventive plan the university has executed exceptionally well to this point.
“I am not going to take credit for the fact that we have had so few cases,” Aukerman said. “Because we will get cases — I’m positive we’re going to. Just like I’m positive we’re going to see cases in our community.
“What I hope to do, with all of the help of the athletic trainers and all the strength and conditioning coaches, all the sports staff, when we do get a case, we can rapidly contact trace and decrease the potential of that one person being 14.”
Aukerman credits OSU’s ability to keep its athletes COVID-free to several factors: The thoroughness with which the school has educated its athletes on the virus, the support from Oregon State’s coaching staffs in following through with the plan, and the way in which the school has set up its athletic facilities during voluntary workouts.
“I wanted to make sure we are being good stewards of our community health and our public health department partners. In that if and when we do get a positive test, then we can really help them with rapid and accurate contact tracing,” Aukerman said.
“Everything we’ve done, we’ve tried to say, ‘OK, what is the definition of a high-risk contact? What is the definition of those people where the spread of the coronavirus is likely?’ And then we tried to eliminate every one of those opportunities in our athletic facility.”
Upon returning to campus, athletes go through a physical that is intended to screen for cardiac risk and assess if they have had a previous COVID infection. Additionally, each athlete gets a polymerise chain reaction test, and they are held out of any activity until the results of that test come back negative.
Also, the school began conducting surveillance testing once it started getting more athletes back on campus. Each week, a group of athletes is randomly chosen and put through another PCR test. Over the course of a month, each athlete is tested at least once.
Aukerman said last week alone, the school conducted over 100 tests on student-athletes. Coaches who are interacting with athletes at OSU’s facilities are also subject to testing.
When athletes enter the weight room, they are masked and separated by more than six feet as soon as they walk in. They then wash their hands and head to an individual workout station that is separated from the nearest station by more than 14 feet.
They work out at that station and that station only, and when they finish their workout, the station is cleaned. Once an athlete leaves the facility, they wash their hands again.
“We’re eliminating any common touch areas, or any areas where that potential spread can occur,” Aukerman said.
While the school is doing everything it can to keep its facilities as safe as possible, it has little control over what an athlete does once they leave a workout and go back to the real world. That, Aukerman says, is where Oregon State’s athletes have risen to the occasion to ensure that positive cases stay low.
“I’m not going to try to be the police of every activity they do,” Aukerman said. “Nor do I think we should control everything they try to do; they are student-athletes and we are not creating a bubble or restricting their activity. It is very dependent on the choices that they make.”
Aukerman said that he has seen athletes wearing masks on campus and in the community and that athletes have been proactive about taking measures to stay healthy.
While things have gone about as well as one could hope for Oregon State since it began testing, Aukerman did spell out a potential scenario that could mean trouble for the school. If a cluster of positives tests were to suddenly surface that weren't traceable to one group of student-athletes, OSU would have to reconsider its approach.
“If we get five different positive cases that are unrelated and they’ve contracted it through the community somewhere, we’re going to have to shut it down,” Aukerman said. “Because that means we have widespread infection rates and widespread transmission of the virus in our community overall.”
But for now, he believes the university has taken every possible measure to keep cases down, and the actions of coaches and athletes outside of organized workouts has only bolstered that effort.
As far as what the current landscape means for a potential college football season this fall, Aukerman is somewhat optimistic. He does not believe it is likely for a full season to be played without setbacks, but that some sort of schedule is possible if the nationwide infection curve decreases over the next several weeks.
“I think there’s a good possibility we could play football,” Aukerman said. “I think it’s going to be a different kind of season. Do I think it’s going to be one where every team starts and every team plays week after week after week and there are no positive cases and there are no teams that have to be held out? I don’t believe that. I believe that there will be some games missed, some games rescheduled.”
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