An Attempt To Write About Covid
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It's funny. I spent hours and hours last week writing a post about Covid only to delete it upon completion because there's so many things I just don't understand. But here I am again, writing about Covid. I wonder if I'll delete this one before I get to the end. YOU MIGHT NEVER READ THESE WORDS.
Perhaps the best way to do this is to just ask a bunch of questions. Maybe we can have a discussion in the comments. And yes, I realize that I just said "maybe we can all have a civil discussion about Covid". Even scientists say we don't know enough about the virus, and here I am, opining.
Or perhaps just asking questions. Here's where I'm stuck: Are we currently at "eliminate spread" or "manage spread"? Man, that's a bad way to ask that question. I need to back up. All the way back.
In February I read this article (I promise I'll eventually get to "how does this affect college athletics?"). That's the now famous "you're probably going to get Coronavirus" article in The Atlantic. It suggested that, with asymptomatic spread, there were probably already 200 people in the US with Covid, and that's enough to "seed" it across the entire country. It stressed all of the things that have been stressed since - for many, symptoms will be mild, and for some, symptoms will be nonexistent - but that the risk to the older population and those with immune system issues would be vast.
At the time, I think my takeaway was "it's here, and it's going to spread like the flu, but it's not going to affect my daily life". Like most, I didn't know anything about flattened curves or asymptomatic spread. That changed on March 12th and... well, you all know this part. I'm just retracing my steps.
We then learned about flattened curves. Yes, this whole thing could be over by May. We could let it spread like wildfire, X-number of people would die, hospitals would be overwhelmed, but we'd reach herd immunity and move on. Flattening that out would really lengthen the process here - people will catch it in June and October and next February instead of two awful months in the spring of 2020 - but it's the best way to limit the deaths.
(If you disagree with some of these details - and I sure I have some of them wrong - please just keep reading. I'm just retracing the lowlights to get to my point.)
The curve was flattened - or, at least, flattened enough that there are currently no hospitals in the US bending under the pressure of coronavirus - so now we're in the messy "waiting for a vaccine" phase. (I understand that some will say there are still hospitals bending under pressure and others will say that there were never really any hospitals bending under pressure, but I'm trying to avoid those Facebook debates and get to my point.) In this phase, I find myself really struggling to understand what we're going for. Is it "between today and a vaccine limit the cases to as few as possible" or is it "keep it between the rails"? I'm asking.
Because of the way Illinois has gone about this (the state, not the school), I'm of the belief that the point is "keep it between the rails". We moved from Phase 2 to Phase 3 and then Phase 4 of this Restore Illinois plan but some areas like the Metro East are now in danger of going back to Phase 3 because of rising case counts. That's what I mean by "keep it between the rails". We'd all still be locked down if the point was "eliminate as many cases as possible". Governmentally, the attempt is to find a balance between total lockdown and cases spiking out of control. I don't envy anyone making these decisions.
OK, finally back to sports, because this is where I get confused. Northwestern announced that they had paused workouts because of one positive case. The same day, Illinois announced that there have been 23 cases among athletes since they returned to campus in early June, with 75% of those positive tests coming from the football team. This is what I meant by "eliminate spread" and "manage spread" above. Shutting down because of one positive seems to be in the "eliminate spread" camp. Quarantining athletes after positive tests (Illinois says there are only three active cases at the moment) and continuing workouts even after positive tests seems to be the "manage spread" method.
I understand the big picture here. The risk with 23 cases over two months is spreading it to the community. It's likely (although not a certainty) that 20 year-old athletes won't see severe symptoms nor have any lasting effects. But there's always the risk of community spread. That having football workouts puts an unnecessary burden on the C-U community (I mean, that includes me now).
And that's where I get stuck in my head. I feel like I need guidance. We've flattened the curve below the "healthcare system overwhelmed" line. If it ever creeps up to that line again, we'll go back under certain lockdown restrictions (and college athletics will be shut down). But short of that line, what are we going for? I'm honestly asking, because I don't think I know the answer.
If it's "the fewest number of cases possible between today and the day a vaccine arrives", then we all need to Northwestern (one positive test, shut down all workouts).
If it's "keep the line below 'healthcare system overwhelmed' until we have a vaccine", then Northwestern should Illinois and work players out in groups of 12 (or whatever the number was), quarantine a group if there's a positive test, and keep going.
I'm asking this because we're approaching full team workouts soon. If there's going to be a season there has to be practice, and that means 105 players practicing together. Across the country, there will be positive tests. And when those positive tests are announced, I need to know what they mean.
Here - I show you how I've approached this issue over the last five months. I last wrote about this topic on March 25th, so two weeks after everything was canceled. Here's what I wrote at the time:
We'll start here: I think we have to at least acknowledge that the 2021 college basketball season might not be played. I'm not trying to scare everyone, just noting that we don't really know when this might end. I've already come to grips with the fact that this college football season might not be played. I've read several articles about the Spanish Flu in 1918 and how it came roaring back in the fall and wiped out the college football season. That's obviously possible here, and when I stretch out that thought...
Until there's a treatment or a vaccine, it feels like we're constantly be at risk of a hotspot. We'll flatten the curve, and cases will be spread out over 18 months, not two months, and during those 18 months - again, without a treatment or vaccine - it feels like a shooting guard from Utah could get COVID-19 and shut down the entire Maui Invitational overnight. And then there's a hotspot in Ohio and all college sporting events are canceled in Ohio for the month of January 2021 (and so on). Maybe there's articles I'm not reading, and maybe there's some "herd immunity" thing I don't understand, or maybe there's even a treatment approved in two months and life returns to normal, but to me, I've already begun to deal with "the next event I cover could conceivably be the Nebraska game in Ireland".
Let's focus on that shooting guard testing positive (and let's make him a Texas shooting guard because Utah isn't even in the Maui Invitational). The Maui Invitational is still on as of three weeks ago. Given how college athletics seems to be moving towards "conference play only, limit travel", I'm guessing it will be canceled, but as of now, still on. An event like that - eight schools from eight different parts of the country all flying to Hawaii - would make me uneasy if I'm the Hawaii Governor, but again, all of those uneasy thoughts get stuck on this same topic. Is the focus to stop all spread? If so, a Texas shooting guard taking Covid to Hawaii is a nightmare. Is the focus to keep the case number at a manageable level until a vaccine? If so, even though it makes me uncomfortable to think of eight states sending a plane to Hawaii, play on as long as the Hawaii numbers look OK.
I know it doesn't work like this, but I find myself wanting someone to come out and declare which one of those two tracks we're supposed to be on. If it's the first, it's fairly obvious now from the Marlins to the Cardinals (to Clemson and Rutgers) that this can't be done without multiple cases so shut it down. If it's the second, I'd like some guidance on how much is too much. The plan of "we'll build in multiple bye weeks for rescheduled games to take place" makes sense logically - if there's a spike in cases two days before a game you cancel and reschedule when both teams are spike-less - but again, what are the parameters of a spike? Five positive tests? Fifteen? The starting QB is going to be out?
I guess this is all a result of the first pandemic of my lifetime. There are no rules. It's a bunch of moral questions and every country is dealing with it in a different way. But when I see these Northwestern and Illinois stories drop on the same afternoon, they lead to one question: what's the goal right now? And, specifically, for me, what's the goal in Champaign, Illinois? If I'm doing the math right, 12 football players arrived on campus testing positive (all quarantined and recovered) and six have tested positive in the last two months. Is that putting this community at risk of greater spread? Or is the point that the healthcare system can manage that spread and play should continue?
In March, when I wrote the article linked above, I was thinking in Rudy Gobert terms: one positive test cancels games. In June, when the charts all pointed downward and athletes were returning to all campuses, I was fairly certain that positive tests wouldn't shut anything down. Each campus had a plan for what happens when positive tests occur because positive tests are absolutely going to occur. Then states saw spikes over the summer and I'm not sure I've seen anyone tell me what it means.
So I find myself wanting someone to make that declaration. Which of these two?
1. We're going to attempt this, but once the season starts, positive tests will cancel games (and then the season). Like March with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, this is a public health issue. We cannot have Oklahoma traveling to Ames, Iowa and possibly bringing an outbreak along with them.
2. We're going manage the cases as they come up. We will quarantine players, reschedule games if cases reach X, and generally ask teams to go deep into their roster in order to continue playing games. All players can opt out at any time and keep their scholarship.
I feel like I could understand and accept both. "Is there a risk for long-term health issues for the players themselves?" is also part of this, but I feel like that's a separate discussion (and would be part of both 1 and 2 here). My question right now - which of these is the track we're on?
"Northwestern football suspends all workouts after positive test" would suggest it's 1. "Illinois has seen 23 cases in all sports the last eight weeks; 20 recovered, 3 still quarantined" would suggest it's 2.