On Tuesday, Lehigh University temporarily suspended training and practices for all sports programs after several Lehigh students tested positive for the coronavirus.
“In the past two days, we have seen our first positive COVID-19 cases in students living on campus and four new off-campus student cases,” a Lehigh University communication said. “Lehigh Athletics has implemented robust safety and training procedures, including limiting the number of student-athletes training at any given time and participating in ongoing surveillance testing. Close contacts resulted from shared local personal travel and contact at informal gatherings, including meals.”
Lehigh’s COVID-19 task force chose to suspend athletics activities not necessarily due to the number of positive cases – Lehigh’s overall , but due to the number of students that require self-isolation and quarantine due to contact tracing.
From Lehigh’s COVID dashboard, Lehigh has had a grand total of 15 positive COVID-19 cases identified among Lehigh students, though seven new cases – five from off-campus housing, two on the Lehigh campus – were identified this week.
Two of the students were members of the football team. As a precaution, once the staff learned of the positive tests, Lehigh cancelled weekend football practice for the entire team, and members of their position groups and their position coaches went into isolation.
“We were fortunate to get through five weeks without any cases, and I think our protocols worked well until a couple of cases emerged,” Lehigh head coach Tom Gilmore told me. “We have been and will continue to take steps to make sure everyone is safe and healthy. We are not in a bubble, but everything seemed to be working well and the cases that emerged do not appear to have stemmed from athletic training activities. However, we took the precautionary step to pause all training until we were sure we were COVID free again.”
Lehigh’s two positive tests are not the first time college football players have tested positive for COVID. Many college football games and training activities have been cancelled or postponed in an effort to prevent COVID outbreaks, the most recent example being Notre Dame, who recently reported 18 positive COVID tests that appear to have been traced to a sick player and a pregame meal.
“We have seen a significant increase in the number of students requiring quarantine,” Lehigh’s statement continues. “Careful contact tracing has identified at least 60 close contacts as a result of these new COVID-19 cases, including cases connected to multiple athletics programs. These initial positive cases were identified in students who were tested because they had COVID-like symptoms. The close contacts who were identified have been contacted by our Health and Wellness Center, directed to quarantine, and have been, or soon will be, tested.”
Many athletes in training have certain personal interactions that don’t allow for social distancing or masks, so when there is a positive case, the number of people that could be exposed could be significant. For example, if a linebacker tests positive and was doing contact drills with the whole group, or close contact with coaches for long periods, everyone involved would need to isolate for ten days to make sure they did not contract COVID.
Contract tracing identified the possible exposure, and the protocols set up by Lehigh’s athletic department seem to have worked the way in which they were designed. After the quarantine period, it is hoped that athletics activities can resume.
“We have been very vigilant with contact tracing in order to be safe, and that requires a lot of effort,” athletic director Joe Sterrett told me. “Overall, things have gone well even though we’ve been very conservative with our approach.”
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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