The Radford University athletic department does not have the fat wallet of schools in the power conferences, but it hopes to follow the NCAA’s recommendations for in-season COVID-19 testing of athletes.
The NCAA issued guidelines last week that recommend testing and results should be obtained by schools within 72 hours of a football game kicking off and within 72 hours of the first game of the week for other “high contact risk sports,” including soccer, volleyball and field hockey.
“We do have concerns as to how often they’re advocating that we test and the potential cost, but we think that we’ve got a pretty significant plan in place that at least for the time being, we can meet some of that,” Radford athletic director Robert Lineburg said this week. “We’re going to do our best to get as close to that as we possibly can.”
The cost and logistics of the NCAA recommendations were a major reason the ODAC — a Division III league — announced Tuesday it was postponing the fall sports season until the spring semester.
Radford is a Division I school, but it belongs to the Big South and lacks the financial resources of schools in major conferences.
Radford does not have football or field hockey, though, so it would only have to foot the bill for weekly testing of men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball players in the fall.
“Not having football, particularly for us with where we are budget-wise, is a real fortunate thing,” Lineburg said.
Football schools in FCS leagues like the Southern Conference might find the cost of weekly testing during the season to be too expensive. Getting test results back within the NCAA’s 72-hour window could also be a problem.
“There are some challenges when you look at testing right now,” SoCon commissioner Jim Schaus said. “One of the challenges is how long it’s taking to get results. … You’re looking at four, five, even seven days before you get a test back.
“Cost is certainly a factor [for SoCon schools], but it’s also in terms of availability of tests. There are periods where they aren’t able to get testing at the same level they would like.
“Meeting a once-a-week guideline would be challenging for our schools.”
The SoCon includes VMI.
“Our plans continue to develop and the health and safety of our athletes, coaches, staff and fans remain paramount,” VMI athletic director Dave Diles said of the NCAA testing recommendations in an email.
Radford men’s and women’s basketball players have been working out on campus since late June, and a handful of volleyball and baseball players have recently begun working out on campus . Radford has been testing athletes weekly since June 29.
“We are not having a hard time getting testing right now … and it’s been very affordable for us,” Radford assistant athletic director for sports medicine Chad Hyatt said.
“The Virginia Health Department, most of their community tests they don’t charge for. … They have a partnership with the Fralin lab at Virginia Tech, who is providing a lot of the testing material as well. So currently we’re very lucky that we’re able to keep our cost way down.”
Lineburg said in some locales, tests cost $35 to $100 apiece.
“We’re not saddled with that kind of cost,” Lineburg said. “If there comes a time that we’re having to pay for tests at a level between $35 and $100, then it becomes a reevaluation situation.”
Since late June, Radford has had two asymptomatic people test positive for COVID-19 — one athlete and one staff member. They tested positive at Radford before beginning the workouts.
VMI freshman football and basketball players reported to campus on July 11 for workouts. According to VMI, one freshman basketball player tested positive and is isolating at home. None of the football freshmen tested positive on July 11, but one developed symptoms last week and tested positive on July 17. That player is now in isolation at home as well.
Radford had not made plans for weekly testing during the fall season before the NCAA made its recommendations.
“I wouldn’t say that we were originally planning to be that robust,” Hyatt said. “We are already offering a test weekly until the … 10th of August. And then at that point, we’re going to kind of determine with the Virginia Department of Heath what our best course of action is, whether it’s testing every single member from a high contact team or whether it’s testing a sampling from each team.
“But if we’re competing within the NCAA, obviously we’re going to have to be as close to the NCAA recommendations as possible. The fortunate thing for us is our Department of Health has been so great in helping us out to coordinate our testing efforts that we are able to do it. I’m worried that a lot of schools would not … have the same help.”
Hyatt is concerned whether some schools will be able to get test results back in time to follow the guidelines.
“Here in the New River Valley, we’re able to get test results within about 48 hours. But there’s plenty of places that aren’t getting their test results for three, four, five, six, seven days, so that’s going to create a big issue for some schools,” Hyatt said.
One part of the guidelines gives Hyatt pause. He frets that in order to get test results back before a Radford team hits the road, the school might have to test athletes prior to the NCAA’s 72-hour window.
“I would be a little bit concerned in doing a test only 72 hours [before a game] because we have to be able to have results back before the kids travel,” Hyatt said. “We are at a better position than a lot of places; right now we have a 48-hour turnaround time in the test results.
“But if that turned into a 72-hour turnaround time in the test result, that becomes really difficult to wait until 72 hours before a competition to do a test. And that’s going to be for everybody.”
Schaus notes that testing is not the only answer to keeping athletes safe. Masks, social distancing and education about behavior are also important, especially since an athlete could still contract COVID-19 after testing negative in a given week.
“There’s a lot of ways to present a very safe environment. … Testing is one of those vehicles but has limitations,” Schaus said. “You can’t discount all the other criteria that goes into the overall protocol that a school is implementing.
“I think the NCAA realizes the overall health and plan that an institution has, testing is one piece of that. In some cases, those guidelines may not be realistic or even possible in terms of the testing timelines. And there’s more to it than just testing.”
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