BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Lehigh Athletics is dedicated to health and safety measures, as the department goes through a thorough process to ensure competitions take place safely.
The process Lehigh has adopted requires individuals defined as Tier 1 in basketball and wrestling, sports that are both currently in-season, to take a COVID-19 PCR test three times per week on non-consecutive days, with the final test occurring within 72 hours prior to competition. A similar process will be required for other sports as they receive permission to begin training and competition, with variability in testing frequency a function of the relative likelihood of virus transmission in each sport, as determined by an NCAA panel of medical advisors to the Office of Sport Science. Regular testing is a demonstrated means of helping to manage the health of a community and the testing program within Lehigh Athletics meets or exceeds the NCAA, Patriot League and EIWA testing guidelines. Lehigh Athletics works with Lehigh Valley Health Network for testing.
“For the past seven months, the Athletics COVID-19 Steering Committee, Athletics COVID Response Team, and numerous subgroups have worked to create a safe and healthy environment that gives our student-athletes an opportunity to engage in activities essential to our core mission of supporting and advancing their learning, personal growth, and preparation for a lifetime of leadership,” said Tim Doane, Lehigh’s Director of Sports Medicine and the Co-Chair of the Athletics COVID Steering Committee.
“The development and implementation of our ever-evolving protocols and procedures are the result of more than 100 coaches and staff members coming together with the collective understanding that the health and safety of personnel, student-athletes, and the campus community is our highest priority. The Athletics COVID-19 Management Plan maintains alignment with guidelines from the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Bethlehem Health Bureau, Lehigh University COVID Response Team, NCAA, Patriot League, and National Athletic Trainers Association.”
Tier 1 is the highest exposure tier and consists of individuals for whom physical distancing and face coverings are not always possible or effective during athletic training or competition. Examples of relevant individuals include student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, medical staff, equipment staff and officials.
Upon notification of a positive test result, all team activity is paused pending a review of exposure and identification of close contacts by trained contact tracers. A close contact is defined as exposure to an individual with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis two days prior to the start of the individual’s symptoms or two days prior to the individual’s positive test (if asymptomatic). Exposure is defined by a set of circumstances including, but not limited to being within six feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Individuals with a positive test must isolate for 10 days, and the close contacts of an individual with the COVID-19 virus must quarantine for 14 days to ensure symptoms do not emerge during that period.
Members of the Lehigh University Sports Medicine department and other designated athletics (non-coach) personnel coordinate the contact tracing process for student-athletes and coaches who were potentially in contact with an infected individual. Designated contact tracers are required to complete the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center contact tracing training course.
Once the contact tracing process is complete and all close contacts have been placed into quarantine, activity for Tier 1 individuals not identified as close contacts may resume.
“It has been about compartmentalizing and figuring out who needs to go where,” said Assistant Director of Sports Medicine Catharine Rudio, who has been at the forefront of the department’s contact tracing process. “It is really about collecting as much information as possible and figuring who needs to go into quarantine, who could potentially be in quarantine and who is still able to proceed as normal. It’s more so about fact finding with a little bit of investigative work because you have to call, ask certain questions and trust you’re receiving truthful answers.”
Rudio noted the value of bringing contact tracing in-house is that it expedites the process of getting individuals into quarantine or getting them back to athletic activities. Contact tracing done by outside parties could take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to initiate.
“Our team of contact tracers within Athletics has worked tirelessly to quickly identify and quarantine exposed individuals,” Doane said. “They have done a phenomenal job containing close contacts and preventing further spread among our teams currently competing.”
When there is a positive case, and following the completion of contract tracing, a discussion occurs between the health care or medical personnel from each institution involved in scheduled competition. If the health care or medical parties agree that competition involving athletes who were not close contacts of an infected individual can proceed in a safe manner, final approval from athletics administration and league officials is solicited.
An obvious consequence of this process is that change to original scheduling is more likely in the current health environment. The aim of athletics administrators is to provide opportunities for student athletes to enhance their developmental experience through competitive experiences, while ensuring the health and safety of all who are associated with that effort. This commitment has required and likely will continue to require “pauses” in training, changes in competitive schedules and isolating or quarantining of individuals and their close contacts when positive test results are determined. In such cases, as federal privacy laws require, the specific identities of those who experience positive tests will not be released.
“We’re trying to create that balance between contact tracing and making sure that we’re all following the proper policies and procedures related to COVID as well as working on the health, safety and well-being of the student-athletes, for pre-practice, rehab treatments if necessary, evaluation and preventative care,” Rudio said. “It’s taking our normal responsibilities as an athletic trainer and merging them with the COVID protocols and contact tracers.”