Madison, Wis. - As the search continues for what started the COVID-19 outbreak inside the University of Wisconsin football program, athletic director Barry Alvarez and others are trying to learn from the situation to prevent from it happening again.
“That’s the thing we’re putting together right now,” Alvarez said in a Zoom interview session Tuesday after the school announced its game against Purdue, scheduled for Saturday, was canceled. “Trying to figure out how we can improve.”
Wisconsin has had 27 positive tests since Oct. 24, the day after the Badgers opened the season with a 45-7 victory over Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium. Alvarez said the outbreak hasn’t carried over to other Badgers teams. Some programs, such as men’s basketball and men’s hockey, can begin play this month.
Researchers at Wisconsin are analyzing viral samples from players and staff to determine if there was one point of introduction that led to the spread or, potentially, multiple clusters of the virus running through the program. David O’Connor, a UW-Madison pathology professor who operates a lab, told the State Journal last week that an initial batch of samples was in the process of being analyzed and it would take about a week to learn more about the source of the outbreak.
O’Connor also warned that the timeline for answers is a bit of a moving target because of the possibility that the virus would continue to spread within the program. Indeed, Wisconsin has added 11 positive tests since Saturday.
Meanwhile, two Illinois players, including starting quarterback Brandon Peters, have tested positive and were forced to sit out a Week 2 game against Purdue. O’Connor said he hoped to work with researchers at Illinois to determine whether there was transmission of the virus during the Wisconsin-Illinois game on Oct. 23.
“We’re trying to locate the source and trying to figure it all out,” Alvarez said. “We haven’t put it together yet. … Hopefully, we’ll get an answer soon.”
Wisconsin’s active cases include 15 players and 12 staff members. Badgers coach Paul Chryst acknowledged last week that he had tested positive, and sources told the State Journal that offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph also has.
When Wisconsin refers to “staff” while reporting numbers, that group isn’t limited to Chryst and his nine assistants. It also includes weight room and equipment personnel; football operations, graduate students and quality control staff; medical personnel, athletic trainers and nutritionists; student-managers; secretaries and football office staffers, and those in the video and athletic communications departments who work closely with the team.
When Chryst tested positive after taking a polymerase chain reaction test Oct. 27, that result came after his rapid-response antigen test had yielded a negative result that morning. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the antigen test was inaccurate — the PCR is considered more accurate but takes longer to get results — it raised questions about whether the Big Ten’s goal of having a true “clean environment” on game day is possible considering teams are tested via the rapid-response system well in advance of kickoff.
Wisconsin did occasional program-wide PCR testing along with antigen testing last week to get a handle on how big the spread of the virus was within the program. According to Michael Moll, the school’s chief infection officer for the Big Ten, the Badgers started doing daily PCR tests on Monday.
“We will continue to evaluate the utilization of multiple testing forms to continue to mitigate the risk of spread,” Moll said through a school official.
Alvarez was asked if he’s lost any faith in the testing process, particularly after Chryst’s antigen test came back negative and his PCR test positive on the same day.
“I trust the protocol,” Alvarez said. “We’re using PCR and antigen testing. We want to be thorough. I know there are different levels of severity and different levels that either both tests pick up. I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to try to break it down, but I do trust the protocol.”
Alvarez said former Badgers cornerback Troy Vincent, now the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, reached out recently with information on mitigation techniques being used by NFL teams.