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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.