While the Gophers and their Big Ten football counterparts can take a COVID-19 test every day and know their results in minutes, almost no one else can.
Only symptomatic University of Minnesota students can receive testing at Boynton Health facilities, with some exceptions. In the general public, testing is mostly done for those showing symptoms or known to have come in contact with the virus. Results often take days.
But a key reason the Big Ten reversed course and chose to play football this fall was the promise of daily testing, with rapid results for players, coaches and staff to help identify and isolate positive cases early, before outbreaks occur.
It’s what some experts believe is an ideal system — if only finances and supplies didn’t make it attainable for only a few.
The conference mandated this daily testing begin this past Wednesday. Anyone who tests positive must miss 21 days. Across the Big Ten, athletic directors and coaches have touted the new testing protocols, while awkwardly acknowledging it’s an advantage the general population doesn’t have.
“That’s a decision that was made and not with a lot of dialogue and not with an awful lot of reflection on what that would mean,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told reporters. “… It’s a fair question, and I don’t know if I have an answer other than that.”
Gophers AD Mark Coyle declined a phone interview through a spokesman but did respond to questions via e-mail. When asked if it was fair for athletes to receive daily testing while the rest of the university’s students could only access testing if symptomatic, he replied:
“Student-athletes, like all students at Minnesota, can maintain physical distancing, wear a face-covering, practice good hygiene and limit their in-person interaction in their personal lives. However, they cannot do that in their role as a student-athlete, which is why daily testing is necessary.”
When pressed to specifically address the fairness question, through an athletic department spokesman, Coyle had no further comment.
To test or not to test
Aside from football, the university’s general policy is to test only those with symptoms. That aligns with Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, said Kris Ehresmann, the department’s director of infectious disease and epidemiology.
“[An ongoing, continuous testing cycle] takes a huge number of resources,” Ehresmann said. “As more and more resources come online, that’s something that can be considered.”
She said she doesn’t know of any testing shortages on college campuses in Minnesota.
Ryan Demmer, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, said it still can be challenging for an average person to obtain a coronavirus test. Some students trek off campus for tests, where testing is more accessible in cases of potential exposure. But Demmer said he still receives a couple of calls a week from asymptomatic family and friends without known coronavirus contact having to navigate a tricky landscape where one provider might allow a test and another won’t.
The Minnesota Student Association (MSA), the university’s undergraduate student government, has advocated to the Board of Regents for more student testing, though a policy like the Big Ten’s for about 30,000 students plus faculty and staff seems currently unrealistic.
“We have been expressing our concerns,” said Shelby Jacobson, MSA’s communications director. “Our No. 1 priority is keeping students healthy. And getting them increased testing is part of that.”
Per the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard, the campus administered just 305 tests in the week ending Friday. The University of Illinois tests all undergraduates twice per week. Minnesota’s weekly positivity rate — skewed because the school tests few people, and the ones tested are mostly symptomatic — is more than 17%, while Illinois’ is below 1% and the national rate hovers around 5%.
Demmer prefers Illinois’ strategy to Minnesota’s partly for that accuracy reason, though there is debate in the medical community for and against both.
The state has averaged about 23,400 tests per day throughout the past week, peaking at 32,077 on Thursday. It aims to increase tests to about 50,000 per day soon, said Daniel Huff, Minnesota Department of Health assistant commissioner.
Minnesota might need that, with an expected surge coming from colder weather, flu season and more gathering indoors.
Testing 170 Gophers football players and staff would be just a fraction of the state’s daily testing capacity if the Big Ten hadn’t contracted with private labs, but that could still become a burden if testing supplies can’t keep up with demand.
“We recognize the important value that sports plays in all of our lives,” Ehresmann said. “… But yes, if we got to a point where testing capacity was really in limited supply, public health might have a perspective on testing that might differ from some of the sports leadership.”
Right or wrong
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan is glad his university leaders put their athletes’ safety at the forefront, but he didn’t weigh in on whether it’s right for other students to go without daily testing.
“What I know is the University of Minnesota is doing everything that they can for us to be in a safe environment, and I’m blessed that they’re doing that,” Morgan said. “… But yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, to be honest with you, but I definitely will be thinking about it now.”
Students can take online classes or live off campus. Athletes, if they don’t opt out of the season, must encounter their teammates and opponents, plus travel. But others are in similar circumstances who aren’t athletes, such as a student dining hall worker.
The fact athletes have access to better testing than other students is one of the main questions ethics expert Don Heider hopes Big Ten leaders from the 14 schools confronted when they decided to play. The Big Ten had canceled its fall sports season on Aug. 11 amid coronavirus concerns and then watched as the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 proceeded to play.
Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said from the outside it appeared the Big Ten let public pressure or financial concerns influence a turnaround. The Gophers, for example, projected a $75 million revenue loss without fall sports. And a lack of Big Ten transparency on that about-face makes the decision look suspicious.
Two weeks after the Big Ten announced its return, it revealed more detail about what kind of antigen test it would use and what company it had partnered with to administer the tests. Commissioner Kevin Warren said the conference would cover the costs but did not disclose what that would be.
All Power Five conferences have exceeded the NCAA recommendation of testing once a week. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 test three times per week. The Pac-12 also plans to test daily for its reinstated season. The rigorous standard matches professional sports, including the NBA, NFL and NHL.
Before their fall seasons shuttered, Minnesota State Mankato athletic director Kevin Buisman and other lower-division leaders worried about the optics of providing increased testing for athletes and not the public, especially with no centralized national testing standard.
“We would never want to ever position our student-athletes as being a higher priority than any other student on campus,” Buisman said. “But … we’re asking them to take on a different level of risk in that role as a student-athlete, and so I think we want to do what we can to safeguard their health, safety and welfare.”
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.