Fame Protector

Dec 1, 2020

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I'm a fan, right? I'm a fan with a press pass, but I'm a fan. Let's just get that out of the way here - I cheer for Illinois. So yes, this story is a fan cheering for a University. But I'm also a reporter digging into a story and finding a lot of very interesting information. Information that I believe should be on SportsCenter tonight.

It's started with the Zoom press conference today. I wanted to ask Brandon Peters about his feelings about all of the outbreaks in the Big Ten (Minnesota has 47 Covid cases, Wisconsin and Maryland had 30) vs. what happened at Illinois (he and Griffin Moore tested positive, all of their roommates were held out for 14 days for contact tracing, one additional staffer tested positive, and then cases went back to zero and no player has tested positive since). Here's the full video clip and then we'll get to, like, everything.

You could watch my brain start reeling in real time at the very end there. "Wait wait wait wait wait WHAT?" It was time for someone else in the queue to ask questions, so I bowed out and immediately started compiling every thought in my head:

  • For starters, that's a bombshell: Peters would have played against Purdue while positive for Covid-19 if he had only relied on the daily Big Ten tests? Illinois (and only Illinois) has added the second layer of saliva tests, and that's what caught Peters' Covid before anything else? The obvious question there: Did Minnesota climb to 47 positives and Illinois climb to 3 and then back to zero simply because the Illinois saliva test is that much better?
  • Wait, if Peters said he "never" tested positive on the Big Ten antigen test, how do we know he really did have Covid? What's the line between false positive and "no, he really does have Covid"?
  • Technically, since the nasal swab/antigen test is what the Big Ten requires for all players every day, and since it never said "positive" for Brandon Peters, does that mean he could have played against Purdue but we held him out because of our own protocols? I feel like "college football team, in an over-abundance of caution, sits quarterback for game despite his clear test results" is the opposite of what most would expect in this situation.

My brain quickly settled here: Wisconsin had a positive test and then they had two and then they had 10 and then they had 30 and then two games were canceled. Maryland had one positive test and then they had two and then they had 10 and then they had 30 and two games were canceled. Minnesota had a positive test and then they had two and then they had 10 and as of yesterday they're sitting at 47 positives (!!!). Ohio State canceled the Illinois game but has yet to reveal the number of cases that caused them to do so. Michigan paused all team activities yesterday but has yet to announce the number of positive cases. And this is despite every one of these programs testing every athlete every day (with the Big Ten-mandated antigen test).

Illinois had two positives. That spiked to three (Lovie announced a third positive that next week - I later confirmed with the school that it was a staffer, not a player, and "staffer" could mean anything from coach to assistant student trainer). Then that total went back down to zero. There has not been a player test positive since.

The difference? It has to be the saliva test, right? Time to do some digging.

First, let's lay out what Illinois is doing compared to all of the other schools. I wrote about this back in early August. That was my DID ILLINOIS JUST SAVE COLLEGE FOOTBALL? post mere days before the Big Ten canceled the season (only to reverse course five weeks later). It seemed pretty obvious to me. A team of chemistry professors, led by Dr. Martin Burke (pictured above on CNN discussing this very thing), developed a saliva-based test on campus. They turned an old veterinary lab into a rapid Covid testing facility and increased capacity to 10,000 tests per day. And this was done using University resources and University supplies so that no tests would be "taken" from any local health departments.

The result was a home run. An A+. The best campus testing in the country. Just on campus, Illinois has administered more than 900,000 Covid tests. There was a spike in positives when students returned to campus (more or less bringing the virus with them), but it was quickly regulated and the daily positivity rate stayed very low until the students went home for an extended fall/winter break two weeks ago. Here's the campus dashboard as of today:

One spike, then right back down. Just incredible work by the campus. In mid-October, the University of Michigan had to initiate two-week stay-at-home order on campus because their positivity rate had spiked to 3.8%. Once the Illinois students were moved in and the initial spike was finished, the positivity rate never got above 0.69% the entire semester. The day that Michigan went under quarantine for a positivity rate nearing 4%, the Illinois campus positivity rate was 0.18%.

Why? Well, I'm not an immunologist, but I'd say that a really sensitive Covid test that catches cases very early before viral loads spike administered to everyone on campus nearly three times per week with results immediately fed to an app that either allows you or prohibits you from accessing classroom buildings might have something to do with it. We basically beat Michigan 47-3 here.

OK, I'm getting off track. Back to my Peters questions.

My main question: Given this information...

  • Cases spiked at Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Michigan and they were all testing with the Big Ten daily antigen test.
  • Cases did not spike at Illinois (three total, then back to zero).
  • Brandon Peters tested positive on the UIUC saliva test for two consecutive days but negative on the Big Ten daily antigen test.
  • If not for the extra-layer-of-security saliva test, Brandon Peters would have played in the Purdue game while positive for Covid-19 because his antigen tests were consistently negative.

...the takeaway seems pretty obvious here, right? Dr. Martin Burke and his team saved the day.

I forgot to answer the "how do we know that Brandon Peters was actually positive after two negative swab tests?" question. I asked an Illinois spokesperson, and this is what I was told:

The "confirmation" came from the second saliva test. That saliva test reads the current viral load for the person being tested, and his Friday saliva test showed a significant increase in viral load from the Thursday saliva test. He was already quarantined after the first positive test, but after the second test showing an increased viral load, he went directly into the full quarantine (in an isolated hotel/dorm room that he did not leave until the completion of his quarantine).

Peters spoke to the media after his quarantine, and he confirmed that the symptoms were mild and that he mostly just experienced the loss of taste and smell. So this was not a "false positive" situation. He immediately went under a doctor's care and was not allowed around anyone until he was medically no longer contagious.

It's also worth noting something that Rod Smith said in a press conference a few weeks ago. I asked him if he had Covid concerns given that his quarterback had tested positive and he had been in the QB room with that quarterback. He referenced that he was concerned, and that he was being tested daily, but that he had been informed that they caught Peters' Covid positivity before his viral load was high enough for him to be contagious.

So that brings my eyes back to the daily "Big Ten" antigen test. I'm not performing a scientific study here, so this must be viewed as conjecture, but when I combine those two bits of information - the saliva test allowed them to isolate Peters before he was contagious + while he was testing positive on the saliva test (for two consecutive days) he was testing negative on the antigen/swab test required by the Big Ten - then I reach a pretty simple conclusion: get this saliva test into everyone's hands. Like, everyone. NBA. Premier League soccer. Somebody call the Tokyo Olympic Committee.

I fully realize that I'm getting ahead of myself here. No tests are 100%, so I'm sure that I could find examples of students who might test negative on the saliva test and positive on the nasal swab. And there's a whole bunch of stuff I'm really not getting into here (FDA approval of tests, the ability to scale the Illinois saliva test conference-wide, etc). Please do not read this as some scientific paper where I've reached a conclusion (I doubt you would, but still).

What I am saying: given the way the campus has handled Covid - the test developed on campus for campus by campus, the great numbers on the dashboard all fall, a sensitive test catching cases before viral loads spike including the quarterback testing positive before the antigen test detected it - this Illinois fan will pretty much expect nothing less than several Nobel prizes. Yes, it's a pandemic, and five players could go to a party tonight and spread it to 15 teammates, so I'm aware that nothing can prevent everything. But overall, this seems to be an absolute home run for the University. If Brandon Peters plays against Purdue (and is in the locker room before and after), no telling how many teammates would have been infected. Instead, he's isolated, Griffin Moore is isolated, and the outbreak is squelched.

Our team is our fame protector
On boys, for we expect a
Vic'try, from you, Illinois

I never knew we were singing about chemistry professors.


STLIllini94 on December 1, 2020 @ 03:05 PM

As an alumni and donor to the UIUC Chemistry department, the work done by Dr. Burke and his team to develop and scale the saliva test, has brought me far more joy, than any and all athletic achievements. The work is simply outstanding. They absolutely killed it. Even more impressive, when you consider "50,000 screaming fans don't show up on a Saturday to watch a kid to a damn chemistry experiment"

AngeredSnowmen on December 1, 2020 @ 03:42 PM

From the CDC website:

Antigen tests are relatively inexpensive and can be used at the point-of-care. The currently authorized devices return results in approximately 15 minutes. Antigen tests for SARS-CoV-2 are generally less sensitive than viral tests that detect nucleic acid using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction

I have no idea what the chemistry here means, but I do read that antigen tests were chosen mainly for their speed, rather than their accuracy. That makes sense, as teams practice everyday you don’t want to wait multiple days before getting results. But if the saliva test are just as fast and even more accurate, that would be quite the accomplishment for the university.

bradidas on December 1, 2020 @ 03:47 PM

It says a lot about the handling of the pandemic that this test, which identifies cases prior to being contagious, and is executable with resources that our university, and likely many others, already have, has been around since the summer, but has not, in any way, been fast-tracked for wider use or trumpeted by Gov. Pritzker or any media members as a game changer for our state or even country.

thegoah on December 1, 2020 @ 04:46 PM

I agree emphatically with your sentiment and have been confused for a very long time why our test hasn’t been fast-tracked by FDA to make a difference everywhere like it has for us. I would like someone to explain that to me sometime.

But as for Pritzker being at fault for not “trumpeting” enough, well maybe this has something to do with that.


thegoah on December 1, 2020 @ 04:52 PM

Regarding media, though...I made note back in September on Face the Nation they did half the hour exclusively on university testing. They talked to some southern university president who said they were gonna test everyone when they got on campus who lived in dorms tested one time.

Illinois was not mentioned, even though at the time they had been testing everyone twice a week for months.

It’s the craziest thing. It’s insane. We’re completely invisible.

uilaw71 on December 1, 2020 @ 05:19 PM

You guys obviously don’t listen to Wingnut radio, or you’d know this is all a Jeff Bezos plot. The death rates are fake too. It’s all meant to drive the universality of inoculations. I’m shocked that Robert would fall victim to the hype. Better look at what professors own Apple stock!

Duce20 on December 1, 2020 @ 09:37 PM

So the B1G uses the swab test as the definitive for a positive case and we ruled our guys out based on our saliva test picking it up but not the swab and Peters had no symptoms and we are praising the saliva test? I don't get it.

Duce20 on December 1, 2020 @ 09:41 PM

Please disregard this comment I did what I have done before and jump to respond before reading everything. My apologies.

P.S. I tried to delete and edit and kept getting an error message.

IBFan on December 1, 2020 @ 11:09 PM

Articles like This is why IlliniBoard is great. Robert does a tremendous job and the support staff, guest writers, or the “other dudes” are top notch. If you haven’t done so you may want to consider upgrading. The “extra” writings are well worth it. Even if you don’t always agree with Robert you can always be thankful for true Fandom and not clickbait. PSA now ended.

chiefilliniwek09 on December 2, 2020 @ 08:00 AM


SactownIllini on December 2, 2020 @ 03:03 AM

Another great article, Robert! This article confirms to me that someone is paying attention to the UIUC testing: https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/all-illinois-regions-see-decline-in-positivity-rates-data-shows/2377897/

But why isn't it being adopted everywhere?? I've been searching for a test at home saliva kit for months so my family can safely enjoy the holidays with my parents and siblings!

Efrem on December 2, 2020 @ 09:28 AM

Your last point is the real question, Robert. Why isn't everyone using this test?

This definitely seems like something that could/should be helping everywhere. And in a lot more places than sports

NTB on December 2, 2020 @ 05:45 PM

According to the News-Gazette, it's been quite the process to get the test into the C-U community. Would assume the same hurdles apply to lots of places.


skibdaddy on December 2, 2020 @ 11:40 AM

Once again the U of I will lead to positive changes to the greater governing bodies, but not until it's too late. See instant replay for football & basketball.

I'm glad that our abundance of caution has protected the student athletes at Illinois (and PU and Minn for that matter)... but the fan in me wonders if we win 1 or both the games we lost with Peters out if we just follow the "B1G rules" instead of our own more protective rules.

Or... totally a wild speculation here, but what if Wisconsin used the same test/procedures that we have been and didn't infect our guys so that we could have been full strength against PU & MN?

thegoah on December 2, 2020 @ 12:30 PM

That last part of what you said is the point, I think. Where would we be now if Wisconsin had their crap together? We’ve not cost ANY other team a single player or a single game. We’re doing it right. Even if you don’t care about health (I do but I know some people don’t) it’s just basic decency and sportsmanship.

allansellers89 on December 2, 2020 @ 06:26 PM

Thank you!

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