The University of Iowa and Iowa State University athletics departments have spent more than $500,000 each on COVID-19 testing, but with very different approaches.
Neither state school football program has had an outbreak — knock on wood — but other teams in the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences haven’t been as lucky. The University of Michigan canceled its Saturday game against Iowa because more than 50 Wolverines were out because of coronavirus.
Iowa and Iowa State athletics officials acknowledge luck, but also credit testing programs that seek to quickly identify positive cases and student-athletes for discipline in avoiding gatherings.
“I think our medical protocol of doing three tests a week, on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, has proved to be very successful,” ISU athletics director Jamie Pollard said on the Cyclone Fanatic podcast Dec. 9.
The Big 12 Conference — and by extension ISU — has prioritized polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests for student-athletes and staff. Although it can take several hours to amplify DNA to process these tests, the PCR test has a relatively low rate of false negatives and virtually no false positives, according to Harvard Medical School.
ISU requires all football players to take two PCR tests a week, followed by an antigen test the day before the game for anyone who will potentially be on the field.
ISU basketball players, wrestlers and volleyball players must take three PCR tests a week on non-consecutive days. Soccer, softball and indoor track and field student-athletes do PCR tests once a week, while ISU student-athletes in other sports are tested when they have symptoms.
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Iowa State has spent $361,600 on PCR tests since Sept. 1, with money going to the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which processes the samples, the university told The Gazette. ISU performed 6,801 PCR tests from Sept. 1 until about Dec. 9.
ISU has spent $256,000 on 2,665 rapid antigen tests, which are done by Quidel, the department reported.
At Iowa, players of in-season sports — now football and basketball — take rapid antigen tests six days a week per Big Ten Conference protocol. If a test comes back positive, a student-athlete, coach or trainer takes a PCR test to confirm COVID-19, the UI reported.
Offseason sports participants get a PCR test once a week.
The UI has paid $513,678 so far for PCR testing.
The Big Ten is paying for antigen testing at all 14 conference schools through a contract the conference signed in September with Quidel and Biodesix. Rapid antigen tests can produce results in as little as 15 minutes, but have a false negative rate as high as 50 percent, Harvard reported.
Pollard was critical of the Big Ten’s reliance on rapid antigen tests.
“You could have a low-load, carrying 20 or 25 percent of the virus, and you’re going to have a negative antigen test. You could have that for two or three days, yet you’re shedding,” Pollard told Cyclone Fanatic. “And I think that’s why you’re seeing all these Big Ten teams not be able to answer the bell because they had people they thought were negative that actually were positive and were shedding.”
The Big Ten has had 13 regular-season games canceled. Saturday is Iowa’s first, but is Michigan’s third in a row.
“I want to congratulate and encourage our student-athletes to remain COVID free,” James Torner, a UI professor of epidemiology, surgery and neurosurgery who is serving as the athletics department’s chief infection officer, said at the Dec. 3 Presidential Committee on Athletics meeting. “They’ve done a great job, especially compared to other athletes in the Big Ten.”
The Big 12 has had its share of scotched games, including Oklahoma-West Virginia and Texas-Kansas.
Pollard recognized ISU’s Nov. 21 shutout of Kansas State likely wouldn’t have been such a big win if the Wildcats hadn’t had players who had tested positive for COVID-19 or who were in quarantine because of exposure.
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“They were clearly decimated these last couple weeks,” he said on the podcast. “They are practicing with walk-ons out of position, paying linebacker and nose tackle.
“But we all agreed in the Big 12, we’re here to play games.”
The Cyclones face Oklahoma Saturday in the Big 12 championship game in Arlington, Texas.
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