Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart looks around him after the game. Georgia defeated Auburn 21-14 on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

The SEC released its initial COVID-19 safety regulations for football, soccer, volleyball and cross country on Friday. While the medical guidance task force said the measures outlined in the 12-page document are likely to change with new information, it mandates that schools’ medical staffs have “unchallengeable autonomous authority” in making return to play decisions.

"We know we're going to have some outbreaks at some point," Georgia senior associate athletic director and SEC medical task force member Ron Courson said in a Friday press conference. "Hopefully you can minimize those as much as you can."

Here are the key guidelines issued by the SEC:

Testing and isolation

Teams must appoint a “COVID-19 Protocol Oversight Officer” to make sure they follow SEC regulations. 

Football, basketball, soccer and volleyball are considered high risk sports, requiring twice weekly COVID-19 testing. Intermediate and low risk sports, such as baseball or cross country, require less frequent surveillance tests. Athletes and staff previously diagnosed with COVID-19 will not have to undergo testing within 90 days from the onset of symptoms or their positive test. 

Football athletes and staff will receive a test six days and then three days before games. Medical staff and “essential personnel” will test once each week, three days before game day. Officials and medical observers must report one negative result in the week leading up to a contest before teams travel to play. The conference said it recommends schools look for a way to add another test each week for all relevant personnel.

"There's a long window between Wednesday and Saturday," Courson said. "The reality is, we're in a pandemic. We can't prevent things. What we want to try to do is mitigate as much risk as we can."

Courson said a "rapid diagnostic test" on Fridays would shorten the testing window and help prevent traveling with players who are positive. While the twice-weekly polymerase chain reaction test can take up to 48 hours for a result, Courson said a rapid diagnostic test could issue results in 15 minutes. 

Everyone on the football field must wear a mask when not physically active. The conference calls for neck gaiters that on-field players can use during timeouts. Athletes and officials do not have to wear a face cover while actively competing or officiating.

Teams will isolate asymptomatic athletes who test positive for 10 days. Team will do the same for players who display symptoms, and will keep them isolated and inactive until 24 hours have passed without a fever and other symptoms have improved. Players exhibiting symptoms must receive a cardiac evaluation, a doctor’s go-ahead and an “appropriate period” of adjusted training to ease back into activity.

"It's really important to understand we're a part of a bigger university," Courson said. "So, we're working in conjunction with the [Georgia Public] Health Department [and] the university health center in making sure that our protocols are meshing with theirs."

Anyone diagnosed with the illness in the previous 90 days will not have to isolate after close contact with someone who has tested positive. 

Weekly logistics and quarantine 

For “patients under investigation” and confirmed cases before competitions, isolation and testing will follow. The SEC will require full contact tracing for confirmed cases to prevent further spread, and players and staff who test positive will not travel with their teams.

No concrete guidelines exist for players who display symptoms during competition other than a medical evaluation. It’s unclear how or if the SEC will conduct contact tracing for confirmed cases arising during a game.

Teams must notify local health personnel if players test positive while traveling for a game, isolate them and send them back to campus. The conference requires hosting teams to have “dedicated isolation rooms” for both teams.

As with pre-game cases, positive COVID-19 results after a game or while traveling after a game will result in isolation and contact tracing.

The SEC defines a “close contact” as someone who was less than six feet away from a COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 minutes and within two days of symptom onset or a positive test. If close contact is longer than 15 minutes, the person is considered high-risk. 

After contact tracing, close contacts must quarantine for 14 days. Athletes in quarantine may return after two weeks if they don’t display symptoms. The SEC will not require schools to test the contacts of those in quarantine.

Courson said much of their mitigation strategy relies on teaching their athletes good habits, especially once the larger student body returns to campus for classes. Those good habits include wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing to provide multiple layers of defense. 

"I guess you could effectively say [the athletes] are in a bubble for the four hours they're here everyday," Courson said. "But they're also 18 to 22-year-old college students. They're going to have a life, and they're going to go outside and eat and visit with their friends. I think the most important thing we can do is encourage them to make the right decisions."

In a previous announcement this summer, the SEC offered all of its fall-sports athletes the ability to sit out this season and retain their scholarships. Soccer, volleyball and cross country seasons can begin by Aug. 31, and the football season start date is Sept. 26. The SEC has not yet released the Bulldogs’ 2020 schedule.

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