With help from the NCAA and the Spokane Regional Health District, Gonzaga University has implemented COVID-19 testing protocols for all Division I athletic programs on campus. These procedures have been uniquely created for each sport based on a number of factors that differentiate each sport from one another.
Due to the varying style of competition, the NCAA designed three levels of risk to determine testing protocols: low, medium and high. Categorizing each sport was determined by the degree of physical contact and proximity between athletes during practice and games.
Those that are considered high-risk, such as basketball, rowing and soccer, require athletes to undergo the most testing of any other sport. During the offseason the NCAA recommends polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing on 25-50% of athletes every one to two weeks if face coverings and other precautions are not practiced. Testing frequency increases to three times a week once a season begins.
With all GU fall sports being pushed to spring, the men’s and women’s basketball teams are currently the only high-risk sports on campus that have upcoming competition.
“Right now, basketball [players] are being tested three times per week,” Shannon Strahl, senior associate director of athletics, said. “Since they’re the ones that have imminent competition, we’re obviously testing them more frequently.”
Both GU soccer teams are also holding restricted practices despite having to wait until spring before their season starts. With the involvement of the Pandemic Response Task Force team over the summer, a set of guidelines was established to ensure safety of players during drills and scrimmages. This includes limiting groups to five players and maintaining social distancing rules.
“They are definitely quite limited,” Strahl said. “All of our sports with the exception of basketball right now have limitations because there is no competition pending.”
Once an athlete has been notified that they have been selected for a COVID-19 test, they report to the temporary clinic that’s been established in the Herak Club Room. Located on the south side of the McCarthey Athletic Center, athletes enter a sectioned area separated by curtains. Following the test, they leave through a different exit to avoid any unnecessary contact with other athletes entering the clinic.
In the event that a GU athlete tests positive for COVID-19, the process of containing the spread takes effect. Contact tracers begin identifying anyone that is considered at risk of contamination based on close proximity to the athlete, as athletic trainers and the SRHD are also notified of the news. Athletes and others considered at high-risk are to quarantine themselves for 14 days without participating in practice or other team activities.
Because the living arrangements for an athlete vary, maintaining player’s safety outside of their sport has presented a challenge according to Strahl.
“I think that’s always been a concern for colleges and universities across the country,” Strahl said. “It is so case specific and that’s why the contact tracers are so good at their job.”
Strahl also stated that there have been GU athletes who have contracted COVID-19, however contact tracers have not found evidence that it was due to participating in sports.
“We’ve had positive cases within our student-athlete population,” she said. “We have not experienced transmission within-sport.”
While certain sports pose health risks by nature, there are others that are considered non-contact yet are still labeled as high-risk due to the proximity of athletes.
Rowing, for example, consists of rowers facing each other’s back in an outdoor environment, however the intensity involved requires an extreme amount of oxygen intake.
“It’s an aerobic sport, so they’re breathing really hard,” Strahl said.
She explained that because of this, rowing is considered a high-risk sport.
Baseball, on the other hand, consists of stretches where players are spread out in the field but close together in the dugout. The discrepancy in proximity of athletes places the sport in the medium-risk tier.
“For the most part they’re distant but sometimes there’s some risk situations within the sport,” Strahl said.
As for the other lower-risk athletic programs, they currently follow similar procedures that the university has outlined for the general student body. This includes surveillance PCR tests conducted by the same laboratory GU has partnered with as well as the SRHD. And like students, athletes can expect test results back within 24-48 hours.
However, with the impending arrival of antigen testing, students will only have to wait minutes for their results.
“As soon as we, Gonzaga University, receive the equipment and training, we will be moving to the antigen testing,” Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “We’ll be able to get results back in 15 minutes.”
Once approved, athletic trainers themselves will be trained to conduct the tests on athletes both on campus as well as during traveling periods. This will ensure that all NCAA and SRHD testing regulations are followed accordingly while a team is outside of Spokane.
The target date to implement the new tests is before the men’s and women’s basketball teams begin their seasons in late November.
“Our student athletes go through the exact same process, just on a more regular basis,” Strahl said.
This will be especially true once more sports are able to compete in the springtime. In accordance with the NCAA and SRHD, these programs will follow stricter guidelines once their respective seasons and travels begin.
Until then, Roth and Strahl both expressed pride in the overall testing process the university and SRHD has designed for athletes and students.
“I feel really good about what we as a university are doing with our testing protocols for all of our students,” Roth said. “We’re making sure our student-athletes are being treated the same as our general student population.”
Strahl understood that while the constant tests might be tedious for athletes, the feeling of relief from negative results is reassuring for everyone.
“It’s definitely there to keep themselves and others safe while they’re trying to get ready to compete,” she said. “When we see negative after negative, it’s reassuring to them that they’re doing a good job.”