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Lack of transparency from NCAA members an issue in solving COVID-19 crisis

Notre Dame
Notre Dame's game against Wake Forrest was postponed due to positive COVID cases. Notre Dame and Wake Forrest did not provide its full data on COVID-19 positive to ESPN earlier this month. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Imagine trying to put together a 1,000-piece puzzle but being given only a quarter of the pieces.

That’s the feeling Dr. Mark Stovak and others have had when giving best practice advice on attempting to play college athletics during a pandemic. Stovak, a UNR medical teacher and Wolf Pack team physician, is one of 16 people on the NCAA’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group.

But he, and others, have been frustrated with the lack of transparency on COVID-19 from the teams and conferences currently playing college sports.

“If the schools that were playing were sharing their data on how many times they’re testing, what tests they’re using, how fast they’re getting their turnaround, how many positives they think might be occurring on the field, then we’d all have information to go by,” Stovak told Nevada Sports Net. “But we have no information. We don’t even know how many guys on each team are currently quarantined and not able to play. I don’t think they’re even releasing that information.”

Medical professionals need data to give advice, but that data has been in short supply when it comes to college athletics and COVID-19, and it’s in short supply, in part, because of the lack of information coming from schools. On the verge of the college football season, ESPN reported almost half of the 65 schools in power conferences declined to share data on how many positive tests they’ve had.

Nearly a third of those schools didn’t provide their protocols or number of positive tests. Twenty-one of the schools that declined to provide data are in conferences currently playing football. Count Nevada among the schools that has not publicly released its number of positives COVID cases or overall testing numbers.

“We like to make decisions based on scientific evidence and scientific data,” Stovak said. “We like to make data-driven decisions. But essentially, we have no data, so we’re making what you’d call ‘expert opinions,’ consensus-driven decisions, which are great, but they’re not the ultimate standard of medical decision-making because we’ve never seen this before and have no idea what to do.”

Stovak said there is a need for a national registry that allows medical professionals to track on-field transmission rates to determine if it is occurring. Doctors need that data to see how often COVID-19 could be transmitted during a game or practice. Without those numbers, it is hard to form medical opinions.

“We don’t really know what the risk is of playing football or playing basketball against each other,” Stovak said. “Basketball and football are considered ‘high-risk’ sports for COVID because you’re unmasked and close together. Clearly in football you can wear those shields on your helmet, which we assume will help, or the neck guards you can pull over your mouth. But they’re both considered ‘high-risk’ sports. We don’t know what the risk level is. It could be zero, or it could be severe.”

In addition to the national registry of on-field transmission rates, Stovak said having access to the kind of tests colleges are using, how often they’re done, how many athletes are in isolation or quarantine, how many athletes have tested positive, the positivity rate within teams (both players and staff), the overall positivity rate within athletic departments and on campus and whether universities are testing its students would be useful. The NCAA’s medical advisory panel also doesn’t have access to information on how referees are being tested and how teams are handling athletes who get sick and test positive on the road and how they get home.

The questions are nearly unlimited, but the data to inform answers on best practices aren’t being shared by NCAA members to the NCAA’s Medical Advisory Group. So why isn’t that data available?

“I have no idea,” said Stovak, who also serves as chair of the NCAA committee on safeguards and medical aspects of sport. “My guess would be HIPAA. If you’re releasing all of the players who have COVID or are on the quarantine list, you’re breaking HIPAA violations unless each player specifically gives you permission to release that information.”

But that information could be shared without names being attached. Stovak marveled at the success the NBA has had playing in its Orlando bubble, although that reportedly cost $150 million, which makes it an unreasonable setup for college athletics. But Stovak said getting information on procedures from the NBA, and other pro sports leagues, could inform the NCAA on best practices to limited positive COVID cases.

“I don’t know what’s happening in the NBA and what they’re doing and what tests they’re using and how often they’re testing,” Stovak said. “All I know is it seems to have worked pretty well, and it’s been pretty safe. Hopefully we will get all of that information because clearly that’s going to become useful information as (college) basketball makes its decision to move forward, so as the season goes on and we get toward championships, that’s going to be very useful information.”

Stovak and his colleagues will continue to search for answers to difficult questions, but that process would certainly be improved with more transparency from NCAA members.

“It’d be nice to know what test each school is using and how fast their turnaround time is and when they are testing,” Stovak said. “That would all be useful information, but we really have absolutely no idea, so it’s hard to make educated decisions going forward.”

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