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Should Penn State football publicly release COVID-19 test results? One expert says no

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Matthew Ferrari

Football programs across the country have publicly released their positive COVID-19 test totals, including Clemson, which has had at least 37 cases attributed to its football team.

Those totals have raised red flags about the potential on-time start to the college football season, but one epidemiologist said there isn’t a communal benefit to releasing those numbers.

Matthew Ferrari, an associate professor of biology at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, said that information isn’t necessary for the general public and is more of a threat to the protection of privacy than it is a benefit to the community.

“Disclosing results is about everybody else in the population understanding what the risks are around them,” Ferrari told the Centre Daily Times on Monday. “The goal of disclosing results is to encourage more protective or avoidance behavior by everybody else. I want to be really clear here, that doesn’t mean that you need to disclose the identity of the individual that is infected. Public health surveillance absolutely needs to respect individual privacy and absolutely should.”

Ferrari said disclosing positive results from athletes in particular doesn’t add distinct value to the community.

“There’s really no particular value to identifying an athlete as being infected,” he said. “You’re just identifying that there’s infection in the community and when there’s infection in the community, we should all redouble our efforts to be protective and avoid putting ourselves at risk and putting others at risk.”

What some other Big Ten programs are doing: Of the nine Big Ten football programs that responded to emails from the CDT, four said they have a plan in place to relay their information to the general public: Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Minnesota is the only program of the four to have released any results so far. Its plan is to announce its results on the first of each month, an athletic department spokesman told the CDT, beginning July 1.

Penn State has a plan in place to announce campus COVID-19 test results in the aggregate, according to a report by WPSU last week, but the university’s athletic department has yet to announce a plan to share the same information with regard to football players who returned to campus early this month.

The Penn State athletic department did not respond to a request for its plan on reporting potential positive cases within the football program.

Two other Big Ten universities told the CDT they don’t intend on releasing results for student-athletes. Neither Illinois nor Northwestern have plans to release any COVID-19 test results for their student-athletes.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health plans to include Penn State students who test positive for the virus in Centre County in its case count, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, according to DOH spokesman Nate Wardle.

“CDC rules are that cases should be counted in the county where they currently reside and where they intend to reside for most of the year,” Wardle told the CDT in an email. “So a student who is planning on living on campus for most of the year and gets sick and tested while on campus should be counted in the school’s county.”

Those numbers are sufficient enough to determine the level of outbreak in the community, rendering the athlete totals less valuable, according to Ferrari. If a player tests positive, it’s likely the virus has already spread beyond that individual, which eliminates the purpose of releasing totals for student-athletes as if they are an isolated group, he said.

Penn State has not yet released plans for whether fans — or how many — will be at Beaver Stadium should the season occur this fall. But Ferrari does not believe that whether or not fans are in the stadium should impact the decision to publicly release information on positive tests for student-athletes.

“Honestly, I can’t imagine it being relevant,” Ferrari said. “The chances that the one person infected on the entire campus is an athlete on the field and they’re going to infect someone in the stands is just untenable. If you have a couple of athletes infected, then you have a bunch of fans infected, too. So there’s no reason to call out any one of those more than the other.”

Is it safe to play football? While players are just as likely to spread the virus as other community members, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to play football.

The nature of the sport makes it more likely to spread than through common interaction in the community.

“It’s spread by respiratory droplets,” Ferrari said, “and the closer in contact you are and the harder you’re breathing, the more likely you are to produce those respiratory droplets. ... The game of football itself involves close contact and, like most other sports, involves heavy breathing and the production of those particles. I would have to imagine that would be a comparatively high-risk activity.”

The football team’s COVID-19 test results may not have an impact in State College and the surrounding area, but Ferrari believes the players and coaches can still have an impact.

He’s hopeful they will use their platform to promote health and safety measures designed to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, which Penn State head coach James Franklin did Tuesday evening with a tweet that read “Let’s all do OUR part!” and included a graphic that encouraged hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks.

“I think the far more important message is the role that athletics can play in halting the epidemic,” Ferrari said. “Using their voice to help bring everyone together to communicate the importance of preventative behavior.”