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Here’s how the American Athletic Conference handles coronavirus cases within football programs like Navy

Navy associate athletic director for sports medicine Jim Berry, shown attending to an injured player during a football game in 2018, outlines the American Athletic Conference protocols for dealing with coronavirus.
Navy associate athletic director for sports medicine Jim Berry, shown attending to an injured player during a football game in 2018, outlines the American Athletic Conference protocols for dealing with coronavirus. (By Paul W. Gillespie / Staff)

Many questioned the decision by Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo to not engage in contact practices throughout August training camp.

The veteran coach explained his reasoning numerous times throughout the month, saying it was because of contact tracing protocols. He knew one positive test for coronavirus could wipe out multiple position groups.

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If a wide receiver tested positive, more than likely multiple other players at that position would be deemed close contacts. Additionally, any defensive back that practiced against that wide receiver could be considered a close contact. Same goes with offensive and defensive linemen going against one another in the trenches.

In Niumatalolo’s estimation, if Navy engaged in full-contact practices during which starters and other members of the depth chart blocked and tackled each other, it could have wiped out large segments of the team.

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Of course, that decision to not go “live” at all leading up to the season opener proved disastrous from a competitive standpoint since BYU blew out Navy, 55-3. The Midshipmen were dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball because they were not “pad ready.”

Two days later, Niumatalolo announced the Midshipmen would begin full-contact practices for the purpose of improving the team’s physicality.

Navy football followers now know why Niumatalolo took that approach during preseason. Back-to-back home games against Tulsa and Memphis have been postponed because of positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing protocols.

Multiple sources told The Capital the Midshipmen would have been without upwards of 30 players had this Saturday’s game been played. A large majority of those missing players would have been due to contact tracing.

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Jim Berry, Navy’s associate athletic director for sports medicine, explained to The Capital that American Athletic Conference football member schools conduct testing three times per week. Players, coaches and support personnel are administered a RC-PCR diagnostic test on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Friday morning, anyone scheduled to participate in the next game is given a rapid antigen test.

All test results are submitted to the AAC Medical Advisory Group, which consists of a medical professional from each of the member schools. That group meets weekly and makes recommendations to the commissioner regarding the safety and health risks of upcoming events.

Dr. Lance LeClere is the Naval Academy representative to the group. Dr. Greg Stewart, director of sports medicine at Tulane University, serves as chairman of the group and communicates with the AAC through Scott Draper, associate commissioner for football.

Navy’s initial positive tests for COVID-19 came back Monday, Nov. 2 — two days after returning from a road game in Dallas against SMU. According to sources, more members of the football program have tested positive through testing conducted since that date.

Last Saturday’s home game against Tulsa was postponed by the AAC Thursday afternoon because Navy did not have a firm handle on its COVID-19 problem. This Saturday’s home game against Memphis was postponed Tuesday as it became clear to the Medical Advisory Group the coronavirus spread on the Naval Academy campus was not under control.

“Dr. LeClere and Dr. Stewart have been in constant contact since last week with regard to what was going on with Navy football,” said Berry, noting the AAC Medical Advisory Group considers factors other than positive tests and contact tracing.

“They have an objective method of computing what is going on within your community. It’s not just what is going on within the football locker room,” said Berry, acknowledging the metrics on the Naval Academy campus were trending poorly.

Chuck Sullivan, AAC assistant commissioner for communications, confirmed the Tuesday postponement was the earliest such decision involving a conference contest this season. In the case of three other games — Houston-Memphis, Cincinnati-Tulsa and Tulsa-Navy — the decision to postpone was made either Thursday or Friday.

To date, a total of 40 football games involving AAC schools have either been canceled or postponed, Sullivan said.

Prior to the season, the AAC Medical Advisory Group established clear guidelines for how coronavirus cases would be handled. Any player testing positive is sidelined for a minimum of 10 days. At the Naval Academy, athletes testing positive enter the isolation wing of Bancroft Hall.

Players testing positive are also subject to Centers for Disease Control guidelines that require individuals to be symptom-free without medications for 72 hours.

“If you still have symptoms on the ninth day, you must wait until those symptoms have resolved before getting out,” Berry said.

Meanwhile, players identified through contact tracing must enter quarantine for a minimum 14 days. Athletes at the Naval Academy are quarantined in a separate portion of Bancroft Hall from the isolation wing.

Athletes are tested during quarantine and anyone popping positive moves into isolation to begin that 10-day period.

Under AAC protocols, football players cannot test out of either isolation or quarantine. They can only time out, a policy not being followed by many other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.

There is also a mandatory re-acclimation period for football players testing positive, which lasts five to seven days and gives team doctors time to monitor cardiopulmonary issues. Berry said players identified through contact tracing must go through the standard NCAA-mandated “return to play” process, which usually lasts three to five days.

Any AAC football player that tests positive is sidelined from football activities for a minimum of 15 days. Meanwhile, any player identified through contact tracing is out for a minimum of 17 days.

Throughout this season, Berry and LeClere have been working closely with Beth Campbell, infectious disease control nurse at the Naval Health Clinic Annapolis, on the contact tracing process.

Berry said Campbell has been instrumental in helping the medical staff properly identify players that qualify as a primary contact — defined as someone who has spent more than 15 minutes of cumulative time within six feet of the person who tested positive within 72 hours of the collection of the positive sample.

Berry said Naval Academy athletes in quarantine due to contact tracing are permitted to exercise in a specialized outdoor area. Bryan Fitzpatrick, Navy’s assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning, has put together written workout plans to help quarantined players stay in shape on their own.

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