When Maryland decided to return to the football field along with the rest of the Big Ten, everyone knew there were risks. From university officials to the coaches and players, it was a given that playing during the coronavirus pandemic would likely include navigating the possibility of positive cases.
But few saw this.
At least 30 players and staff members, including coach Mike Locksley, have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks, forcing Maryland to pull the plug on last week’s game against Ohio State and this Saturday’s game against Michigan State.
Both were originally home games for the Terrapins and neither will be rescheduled.
“We started off on this journey understanding what we were dealing with,” athletic director Damon Evans said Thursday on a Zoom call. “Not knowing all the challenges that comes with this, but we knew there would be challenges.”
Those challenges came to a head last week, when eight players tested positive. Maryland moved into a hotel on Nov. 11 and remained there until Sunday in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
Initially, the plan seemed to work. Dr. Yvette Rooks, the assistant director of the University Health Center, said cases dipped over the weekend before a spike during the week canceled practices and, then, Saturday’s game.
“We were trending down and then we had a little uptick and then we paused things again,” Rooks said. “We had an improvement today. We tested today, and I’ll look at the numbers again when I get them this evening to make a decision based on tomorrow. But in terms of the game, obviously we had to make the decision in an appropriate amount of time, and not have a team come here not being able to play.”
Locksley and six other staff members have also tested positive. He said he first experienced minor symptoms on Monday night — such as a small cough and runny nose — and informed Rooks. Once he tested positive, he began isolating at home.
Rooks said there’s a wide range of symptoms for those currently infected, including fevers, coughs and congestion. But, she said, “everyone is doing well.” Maryland’s contact tracing efforts have also identified the root cause of the outbreak, although Rooks declined to specifically name those sources to protect their identities.
“I’m going to be pretty blunt about it,” Rooks said. “We have three sources that we have led to all of our cases … The young men, especially in our football program but with all our sports, have been honest. They realize the severity of this program and as Damon and Mike always say, they are their brother’s keeper and we want everybody to be healthy and safe.”
The Terrapins are not alone in having a coronavirus outbreak, and it’s a byproduct of the rise of cases across the country. Rooks reiterated that this is not a football-spread virus, but a community-spread virus. So as communities reel under mounting cases, football programs are bound to feel the impacts, too.
In Prince George’s County, where the University of Maryland is located, the positivity rate between Nov. 8 and Nov. 14 rose to 8.5%. There have been 2,087 confirmed cases in the county during the same time span. And in the state as a whole, 2,910 new coronavirus cases were reported Thursday, the highest daily total so far.
“As I’ve said before, the protocols that we’ve put in place as the Big Ten and the University of Maryland, I feel really comfortable that we’ve done the right things,” Locksley said. “Now, obviously, we’re in a pandemic where it’s community spread here in our back yard. And I think it reflects that upon our team, much like Dr. Rooks said. So, yeah, I’m not surprised.”
Across the country ast weekend, 15 major college football games were canceled or postponed, and there are already 14 schedule adjustments for this weekend.
Since the summer, Maryland has had 135 athletes across all sports test positive for the virus, out of about 550 athletes. The football team’s 30 cases in the last two weeks isn’t unheard of, though. Wisconsin experienced an outbreak of 27 active cases earlier this season, resulting in two games being canceled. Florida and Baylor had 25 and 28 active cases, respectively, in October.
Those three teams have all since returned to the field, and the Terrapins hope to do the same once their active cases diminish. Rooks said it’s possible that if the caseload stays where it’s at, Maryland could hold fitness or exercise training over the weekend.
Locksley said the team would need at least two practices to play a game — whether those be separate days or a two-a-day setup. The larger concern is keeping players physically conditioned for when the time does come to play games once more.
So despite the outbreak of coronavirus cases among the team, Maryland still believes in the protocols in place to protect its players and hopes a return comes sooner rather than later.
“Our goal is to get back — I want to be clear with that,” Evans said. “But we want to get back in the safest possible manner to make sure that we’re looking after our student-athletes. We’re committed to getting back, we’re committed to doing things to get everything under control, so our student-athletes in the sport of football can get back to what they love to do, and that’s playing this game.”
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