College basketball’s COVID-19 protocols have changed. Here’s what to know
| Nashville Tennessean
After a relatively normal college football season, COVID-19 has returned in full force just in time for the start of basketball conference play.
The omicron variant is more contagious and more resistant to vaccines than previous variants, which has led to large numbers of postponements in college basketball as well as professional sports. The postponements have led to frustration among teams and fans, especially with many positive athletes having few or no symptoms.
The consistently changing situation and protocols have led to confusion. Here’s where things currently stand:
How do booster shots affect the NCAA’s protocols?
The NCAA on Thursday updated its suggested protocols for winter sports teams and its definition for full vaccination status. The protocols state that only athletes who have received a booster shot, who are not yet eligible for a booster based on when they received their initial doses or who tested positive for the coronavirus in the last 90 days are considered to be “fully vaccinated.” Everyone else must follow the protocols for unvaccinated players, which includes more testing and the possibility of having to quarantine as a close contact.
For athletes who are not fully vaccinated, the NCAA suggests testing three times per week with antigen tests or once a week for PCR tests. However, if an individual school has stricter protocols, that would take precedent over the NCAA’s suggestion. Vanderbilt requires unvaccinated students to test twice a week and vaccinated, but not boosted, students to test once a week.
Any athlete considered not fully vaccinated must quarantine for five days and may not participate in any athletic activity during that time, according to the NCAA. They may return to practice afterward without a mask if they do not have symptoms and can produce a negative test.
Because Vanderbilt has a vaccination requirement, athletes are allowed to be unvaccinated only if they have a valid medical or religious exemption. Both men’s basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse and women’s basketball coach Shea Ralph have said their teams are fully vaccinated. It is unclear how many athletes on those teams have received a booster shot. Ralph told reporters in late December that “most” of her team, as well as the entire staff, are boosted, and the team also had several players recently enter the protocols, thus qualifying as having been infected in the past 90 days.
Are asymptomatic vaccinated players still getting tested?
It depends. Neither the SEC nor the NCAA requires asymptomatic vaccinated players to undergo regular testing. The NCAA’s updated protocols say that athletes in the vaccinated protocol only have to undergo testing if they have symptoms, a close contact or there are signs of an outbreak on their team. Specifically, teams are instructed to complete increased testing if there are three or more concurrent cases on a team with fewer than 50 people, or more than 5% of the Tier 1 individuals on a team with more than 50 people. (This is why NC State was required to test its vaccinated players during the College World Series; having four concurrent positives triggered the protocols for teams under 50 people.)
However, some schools and local health departments have instituted stricter protocols, especially in the wake of omicron. Vanderbilt requires all vaccinated and boosted students to take part in a random surveillance testing program, where a random selection of students are selected for testing each week. According to a program spokesperson, Vanderbilt athletes must also follow this protocol.
How long do players have to be in protocols?
The SEC and NCAA recently updated their protocols to match new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying that athletes without symptoms who test positive could return after five days instead of 10. The NCAA’s new protocols state that athletes may return after five days so long as they are fever-free and symptoms have improved. They can resume practice without a mask if they can produce a negative test. According to Stackhouse, Vanderbilt athletes are able to return within five days if they have received their booster shots.
That doesn’t mean a player will play in a game as soon as they clear protocols. In many cases, athletes need time to ramp up in practice before playing in a game. Additionally, not every school or conference has shortened the isolation period. In some states and cities, the rules are stricter. UConn women’s basketball, for instance, has faced a large number of cancellations because the Connecticut health department has continued to require a 10-day isolation period.
Athletes deemed close contacts must quarantine for five days. They are subsequently allowed to resume athletic activity without a mask if they test negative.
Are teams that postpone games ducking their opponents?
It’s a common accusation among opposing fans that whenever a team has to postpone a game due to COVID issues, it’s because it did not want to play that particular opponent. While there is no way to prove it it is likely not nearly as common as many fans think. The SEC and other conferences have specific rules to prevent this from happening.
In the SEC, basketball teams must play if they have at least seven available players and one countable coach; if a team is over that threshold and opts not to play, it will be charged with a forfeit. Teams can, and occasionally have, played under the threshold, but they are not required to. There are complex considerations that go into postponements. Playing a basketball game with fewer than seven players available or a football game while thin at some positions leads to a much higher risk of injury for the players who play, so many teams opt to reschedule the game for safety reasons, especially if they are already dealing with a number of injuries.
It’s also worth noting that a team having fewer than seven available players does not mean all of those players are in COVID protocol. On Tuesday, Vanderbilt played at Arkansas with nine scholarship players available, but only one player was out with COVID; the others missed the game due to injury. Teams that have large numbers of injuries, players in the portal or other availability concerns are more likely to have to postpone games.
And again, local restrictions can be an issue here. During the football season, Cal had to postpone a game due to COVID restrictions in the city of Berkeley that were much stricter than the rest of the country. Had the team been located in another city, it likely would have played, but the city prevented the team from playing. In early 2021, Michigan’s administration required the entire athletics department to shut down for two weeks after the discovery of a new variant, including teams that did not have any positive cases. Neither of the teams opted not to play (and in fact, both were upset about the restrictions), but instead faced local restrictions that complicated matters.
How do poll voters and the NCAA selection committee handle COVID impacts?
The NCAA selection committee only takes into account games actually played. That being said, COVID issues could have an indirect impact on selection. Because a key part of selection is racking up good wins, if a team has a game against a top opponent canceled, it will miss out on the opportunity to bolster its resume and thus potentially lower its chances for selection. Some conferences are still using forfeits, which can impact a team’s seeding in the conference tournament and thus, its ability to get an automatic bid in March.
On Thursday, the men’s and women’s selection committees put out a statement saying that in selection, they will take into account whether teams may have been missing key personnel whether due to COVID, suspension or injuries, in losses. This is consistent with their general policy regarding player absences. The selection committee also encouraged teams to follow their conference’s protocols regarding postponements and cancellations.
In the polls, each voter can decide how to handle teams that have had postponements or cancellations, or have played short-handed. In general, postponements have not hurt teams in the polls.
This content was originally published here.