Contact tracing has emerged as being nearly equally as important as testing for COVID-19 in the operation of a safe athletic department amid the pandemic. Not only is it enough to identify positive cases of the virus, but finding out who that person or persons may have infected goes a long way in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In its updated document titled “Resocialization of Collegiate Sports: Developing Standards for Practice and Competition,” the NCAA said effective contact tracing “is critical in breaking the chain of transmission and limiting the spread of infection for infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

Across the country, collegiate athletic departments are attempting to figure out how to best carry out contact tracing and make it as streamlined as possible. While ECU’s football team has been managing its number of COVID-19 cases fairly well, contact tracing has forced parts of the team to miss time during an important preseason camp, and has presented a steep hill to climb for the coaching staff.

“It’s a challenge we’ve encountered back during July in that, if you have someone that tests positive and they have been within six feet of anyone for 15 minutes or longer without a mask, then they are deemed to be in close contact,” head coach Mike Houston said on Thursday. “If they’re deemed to be in close contact, then they’re quarantined for 14 days. You can’t test out of the quarantine.

“The kids learn pretty quick just that, you got to avoid that close contact without a mask for an extended period of time. Some of the guys that got put in that situation, there’s nothing you can do. You’re worried about mental health, you’re worried about condition, you worry about so much.”

The NCAA document mentioned above cites CDC contact tracing guidelines and states that if someone came within six feet of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes, had any physical contact with that person, or shared utensils, that person should be quarantined for 14 days.

As Houston states above, a person can not test out of the quarantine, no matter how many negative results they return.

For a football team playing a sport that is considered “high contact risk” by the NCAA, a lot of contact tracing is needed for positions like offensive and defensive linemen. Defensive backs and wide receivers are at a lower risk because they are generally more separated, while other positions may not be impacted as much, either.

Nevertheless, practicing in small pods with the same people everyday while utilizing multiple practice fields would seemingly cut down on the need for contact tracing. In a way, ECU has been doing that by spreading football practices out to three different fields and rotating players through.

Still, when it comes time for the team portion of a practice where a coaching staff is attempting to simulate in-game scenarios, the challenge of keeping student-athletes distanced becomes bumps up a level and becomes nearly impossible. 

“If you’re never going to have your first strings together, how are you going to prepare for the speed of the game? If you’re never going to have your No. 1 defense and the back-ups — if we’re working on a substitution package kind of deal — how are you going to prepare for the games? We talked about practicing on two fields, but even doing that, it is just so difficult to get the quality reps and keep everybody separated,” Houston said. “I think as much as we can, we’ve got to try to protect our bubble, and we don’t have the NBA bubble. So we’ve got to try to protect our locker room, and trying to be conscientious of not bringing the virus into our locker room.”

Keeping COVID-19 out of the locker room entirely may be the only way to legitimately guarantee the health and safety of players this fall. Contact tracing efforts may always be a step behind a virus that spreads rapidly. By maintaining as much of a bubble as possible around football players — and all other student-athletes — contact tracing would not be needed, unless a flare-up occurred.

With less than a month before their first scheduled game in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the Pirates have all but learned how to adapt with constantly rotating lineups in practices and scrimmages as some players have to sit out over concerns of potentially spreading the virus.

ECU is not alone in that position, and as stated above, has been doing a solid good controlling the virus within its athletic department. Nevertheless, one exposed football player could potentially expose many others, causing a cascading wave of cases in a relatively short amount of time.

Because of that, Houston sees contact tracing as possibly being the largest hurdle to jump if teams want to have a college football season in 2020.

“The contact tracing is the thing that I think will cause games to get canceled this fall,” Houston said. “When you get in a situation where you have a positive, and that positive is someone that has been in a meeting room in close contact with no mask, or it’s deemed to be a close contact from a game, or something like that, I think we might start running into some problems.”

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