Let’s be honest and complete: The Florida Gators are dealing with either the largest in-season outbreak of COVID-19 of the 2020 college football season to date or a slew of false positives so numerous it should call the testing procedures in use into question.
No matter which of those things is true, they both point to one sane outcome for this weekend: Postponing Florida’s scheduled game against LSU.
Tuesday brought reporting that Florida is dealing with 19 positive cases of COVID-19 among football players. Since then, we’ve learned via G. Allan Taylor of The Athletic that an additional 10 players “face mandatory quarantines” ($) because of contact with players who tested positive, and from Dan Mullen on an SEC teleconference that two assistant coaches have tested positive.
These are facts — and we can rely on these being facts based on rigorous and confirmed reporting on one hand and information coming from Mullen directly on another — that do not support Florida playing LSU on Saturday.
But it’s what we don’t know right now that is cause for even greater concern.
Florida’s spike in cases seems likely to have some root in last week, but it may be hard — if it is even possible — to pinpoint exactly when. The lag from infection time to the moment when the human body builds up enough viral load to be detected by tests is unclear, though you can find legitimate medical sources noting that the false negative rates for tests taken shortly after exposure can be shockingly high. Did Florida players contract this while at Texas A&M? En route? Before even leaving Gainesville? At a party back in Gainesville after flying home on Saturday?
We don’t know.
Florida’s uptick in positive cases also may or may not produce any sorts of immediate health concerns for those infected. The only concrete evidence we have of any asymptomatic infections is Mullen saying Wednesday that both coaches who produced positive tests are asymptomatic. With more than 20 positive cases and more than 30 combined cases and exposures, though, it’s hard to be absolutely certain that every Florida player will come through this without needing to do more than quarantine and manage symptoms — and it’s obviously unclear to the public whether any symptoms are present.
Again: We don’t know.
While it’s likely that younger, healthier people are going to both survive any bout with COVID-19 and come through with fewer long-term health concerns than members of older or less healthy cohorts, it’s also possible that the long-term effects of COVID-19 — which are growing in number and notoriety, to include things like chronic “brain fog” that would seemingly have nothing to do with a respiratory infection — will not manifest for infected people for some time, and that even seemingly asymptomatic infections can produce long-term effects worth worrying about.
Not knowing about this makes it even more crucial to stop the spread as fully as possible.
And aiming to stop the spread is impossible to square with playing a football game on Saturday, because the safest possible way to stop the spread — strict self-isolation for infected people and self-quarantine for the exposed — is going to be hard to get precisely right even if that’s Florida’s sole focus. The Centers for Disease Control’s current guidance on SARS-CoV-2 (its formal name for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) notes that “The onset and duration of viral shedding and the period of infectiousness for COVID-19 are not yet known with certainty.”
Most medical guidance currently suggests that 14-day quarantines are the best practice here; the CDC suggests that symptomatic patients only return to being around other people at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms and 24 hours after the recession of fever not treated by anti-fever medication. For Florida players who are symptomatic and tested positive on Tuesday — which is when the bulk of the new positive tests seem to have occurred — that would mean only exiting quarantine as early as next Friday, a day before Florida is set to meet Missouri.
And while players who tested negative on Tuesday but had contact with players who tested positive — the 10 who now “face mandatory quarantine” would seem to comprise this group — might reduce the spread of COVID-19 by actually quarantining for the 14 days suggested by the CDC, it’s also possible that those players could still test positive in the coming days, which might lead to more players facing mandatory quarantines.
Florida must do these things correctly, because anything less would be a dereliction of its duty to the players under its supervision — and to the program’s credit, there hasn’t been a hint of a whisper that the Gators are doing anything wrong from scientific or medical standpoints. Indeed, Florida upping its testing from thrice weekly to daily this week should help instill confidence that the proper steps in the face of an outbreak are being taken.
But Florida attempting to ace its outbreak response, which it must do, while also nailing its LSU preparation, which it wants to do, is a patently absurd exercise in spinning plates even before acknowledging the stupidity of expecting a team potentially missing a third of its roster and a fifth of its coaching staff at minimum to compete at a high level. If players who are irreplaceable or close are among those who must quarantine — Kyle Trask, or Kyle Pitts, or ... well, surely there’s a most important player on Florida’s defense, at least technically — then Florida is steaming toward a game that it needs to win to maintain legitimate aspirations of SEC or national title contention with significant handicaps likely.
The only sane call right now — barring some revelation of mass false positives that would call many other things into question — is for Florida to call this game off, and for it, LSU, and the SEC to figure out a way to make up this game if need be. That scheduling can be left to people paid to figure it out; the preparations for this game can be scrapped or tabled.
What cannot and must not be botched or compromised is how Florida handles the health of its football players, which the program itself has maintained as paramount throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Postponing this weekend’s game is a key step in doing so, and I’ll anxiously await the news of such a postponement, which Mullen said is likely to come today if necessary, until it comes.
If it doesn’t, I fear that Florida is about to take untenable risks at an uncertain time, ones that may prove to be truly disastrous.