COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before Big Ten Conference presidents voted last week to bring back a fall football season, Ohio State University president Kristina Johnson said she called OSU athletic director Gene Smith and asked for the positivity rate for OSU football players in their coronavirus testing.
“It was zero,” Johnson told cleveland.com on Wednesday. “For those tests, that particular week, we didn’t have any cases.”
That information was so valuable to Johnson, it made her doubly certain of the league’s decision to re-start football in October. Yet it’s information that Ohio State has continually declined to make public. That has been the case since the Buckeyes began testing their athletes during this pandemic.
In an interview with cleveland.com on Wednesday, Johnson explained a potential Big Ten policy that might divulge how football testing is going around the league. It may provide a way for Big Ten teams to keep track of each other, and it might give the public a look at how coronavirus is or isn’t spreading in a conference that changed its mind on whether football could be played this fall.
In response to a question about whether OSU football should make its testing numbers public, Johnson said, “I think that the Big Ten is going to have a dashboard with the information for all of the players coming into this season. So I think that will be available.”
A Big Ten spokesman confirmed to cleveland.com that the 14 member athletic programs will be able to see aggregate testing data throughout the conference. Other details, such as whether programs will be able to see other schools’ individual data or whether that dashboard will be available to the public, are still being finalized.
Johnson agreed that knowing testing numbers for football teams does aid public health.
Many Big Ten schools, including Michigan, Penn State, Purdue and Iowa, have been releasing weekly updates on positive and negative tests among athletes across all sports and among athletic department staff. Michigan State released numbers Wednesday that showed a 9.1 percent positive test rate for athletes from 328 tests, which was actually a decrease from the previous week.
Regular public results track the problems and successes of testing and how they do or don’t relate to the campus and surrounding community. According to an ESPN survey released in early September, among Big Ten schools only Rutgers, Northwestern, Nebraska and Ohio State declined to release athlete testing results when asked.
There’s also a consideration from a football standpoint. For instance, Oklahoma, which at one time regularly released its testing numbers, in early September said it would no longer do that. With games starting, it believed releasing that information would put the Sooners at a competitive disadvantage.
So there’s the issue of what the public should or shouldn’t know. Gov. Mike DeWine, among others, said in July he wishes Ohio State would publicize its athletic testing data. And there’s the issue of what a football opponent should know before or after playing a game.
Last week, Ohio State’s Dr. Jim Borchers, who co-chaired the Big Ten’s medical subcommittee around a return to play, said on the OSU coaches radio show that teams should have access through the Big Ten to an opponent’s testing results.
“We foresee there will be the ability to look and see, ‘Oh hey, Ohio State is playing Indiana for example this week, and it’s Thursday and their 7-day rolling averages are green-green so they look good to go,” Borchers said. “It’s yet to be determined I think how the Big Ten conference will look at that data weekly and provide reports. The intention certainly is to be transparent and forward-facing about what each team’s situation is.”
Ohio State is transparent when it comes to the university as a whole, with a thorough public dashboard that updates campus coronavirus testing numbers. Included are breakdowns of both the 7-day average and single-day testing results for both on-campus and off-campus students. Total tests, and total positive tests, for all students and all staff are available, as are the numbers of students currently in isolation or quarantine.
It’s exactly that type of information that Ohio State has declined to release for athletes.
“What’s important is that the number of tests that you do, the more tests you do, the more accurate of an answer you get,” Johnson said. “So the thing that you want to be careful about when you have small sample sizes is that you protect the confidentiality of the medical information for those individuals. So I think that aggregating that information from the Big Ten, which I believe is the intent, will serve the same purpose of informing individuals who want to learn from a cohort size.”
An entire student body, for instance, is a large enough group for Johnson to be comfortable with releasing public information in the name of public heath. Data on a full conference of football players would make her as comfortable, while the same data for just the OSU football team should not be public in her mind.
Clearly, athletes are a testing ground here. They are being tested more frequently and more thoroughly than other students. One reason football is coming back is the availability of daily testing for athletes. During Wednesday’s interview over video conference, Johnson asked herself the question of why the same daily testing isn’t being done with other students.
“We have tested 76,000 students, about 20,000 a week for the last three or four weeks,” Johnson said. “We are asking them in addition to testing once a week, as opposed to five times a week (for athletes), to wear masks and be socially distant. You can’t ask football players or soccer players or field hockey players to wear masks and stay socially distant when it’s a contact sport. Therefore, in order to keep them safe, we have to test them more often.”
That athletic testing is two-pronged: a basic saliva test with quick results, and a second more rigorous test for any initial positive. In that frequent, thorough testing, Johnson sees opportunity.
“What we’re going to learn by that testing is going to have measurable benefit to how we live with this virus, which I think unfortunately for a while, we’re going to have to live with,” Johnson said. “And I’ve already seen that.”
Johnson, both in Wednesday’s interview and in a news conference last week after the return of football, talked repeatedly about a “clean field.” That’s the idea that constant testing can keep positive athletes away from each other, so that a lack of masks and social distancing doesn’t risk a spread. If the country as a whole ever had similar testing available, perhaps the same would be true. If daily testing can let football happen, it may be one of the proving grounds for whether daily testing can let regular life happen again.
The Big Ten has a plan for the testing. It will gather data. It just has to decide what it’s going to share with the public, and what it’s going to share with the teams that will be lining up against each other, inches apart and mask-free, starting Oct. 24.
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