This year has brought about a lot of uncertainty in every area, including sports. Everyone in the sports world has had to be flexible and adapt to the current situation. From mainstream athletes shifting gears and competing in esports to athletic trainers (ATs) finding innovative ways to continue working at the beginning of the pandemic, the sports world has been through it all!
During these unprecedented times, ATs were vigilant about COVID-19 safety protocols during pre-season and getting their athletes back to play safely. Unfortunately, many schools such as Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina both had to temporarily suspend their athletes from playing due to rising COVID-19 cases within their teams. Previously, even conferences such as the Big Ten and PAC-12 had announced that they were postponing and cancelling fall sports, respectively.
Given the new and innovative methods of testing for COVID-19 that are emerging, the return of sports is closer than we think.
Early Stages Of Testing Athletes For COVID-19
At the beginning of the pandemic, little was known about COVID-19. Along with that, testing was in the works, which meant that athletes couldn’t be properly tested and screened for COVID-19 and sports had to be put on hold. In the early stages, some COVID-19 tests promised that “fast results could help sports leagues get back in action sooner.” These tests, however, weren’t 100% accurate.
This past summer, the National Basketball Association (NBA) played within a bubble (isolation zone) that not only protected its players during games and off the court, but also served as a COVID-19 research laboratory. Players were tested everyday using either the typical method of a nose/throat swab or, if they participated in the voluntary research study, they provided a sample of saliva along with a nose/throat swab. Scientists had also tested out a “smart ring” that players could opt to wear, to track their heart rate and body temperature, in the hopes of detecting early signs of the virus. This experiment was not only conducted with the NBA but also at the University of California, San Francisco and West Virginia University. Since testing is so new it’s hard to say whether these methods are accurate.
On a positive note, the NBA has effectively kept their players safe, with no players testing positive for COVID-19 since implementing the bubble. The National Hockey League (NHL), similarly kept their players safe using the same method and haven’t had any positive COVID-19 cases. Two factors have been attributed to their success in keeping players healthy: testing everybody (e.g. athletes, coaches, staff) every single day and social distancing.
Innovative Methods Of Testing Athletes For COVID-19
The University of South Florida student athletes and staff recently participated in a study measuring the effectiveness of pooled testing for COVID-19. Each week during the fall, participants were tested for COVID-19. If they had a game, they were also tested 72 hours prior to it. Participants gave saliva samples which were pooled into groups of four. If a pooled test was positive, those individuals were re-tested to ensure that whomever was infected would be removed and isolated to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Not only were people being tested, but surface areas that were touched frequently (i.e door handles, faucets) were sampled. Once this study wraps up at the end of the fall semester, researchers will be able to determine the accuracy and cost effectiveness of this type of testing.
Another way that sports medicine teams can track their athletes’ health is by using an Athlete Electronic Health Record (EHR) that provides a COVID-19 Screening Template, like Presagia Sports. Not only does our secure, cloud-based EHR help with an athlete’s performance and recovery, an athlete’s exposure and symptoms can be monitored according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) best-practices. Schools can even record their COVID-19 tests with Presagia Sports’ Medical Test records.
More recently, the Pac-12 has agreed to a partnership with a diagnostic health care manufacturer for rapid results COVID-19 testing. This will entail daily testing for all close-contact sports across all campuses. The manufacturer’s testing machine will produce extremely fast results, in just 15 minutes. These highly accurate tests can be distributed and run across every campus, which they plan to do so by the end of September. This type of testing should theoretically prevent outbreaks from spreading amongst athletes because they can catch infections before they become infectious.
When the Pac-12 did announce postponing all fall sports, their main concern was testing capacity (i.e. frequency of testing and having a rapid turnaround time). Given this new partnership the Pac-12 has announced that they will be resuming their football, basketball and winter sports season, projected to begin as early as November 6th!
The challenges that everyone in sports has had to face this year have been significant. We’re hopeful that as methods of testing athletes (and the general population) become more effective, we’ll get back to some sense of normalcy!