Notre Dame assessed what went wrong. It altered some pandemic protocols and renewed its focus on the fundamental deterrents to virus spread. And with no positive tests Monday or Wednesday, the Irish are going full-steam ahead, awaiting the returns of 18 players in isolation via positive coronavirus tests and 11 players in quarantine due to contact tracing.
Notre Dame expects 14 of those 29 to exit isolation or quarantine before the weekend, setting them up to at least partially partake in a Sunday scrimmage.
“We’re going to be able to prepare the football team to play Florida State,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday before the first team practice in nearly two weeks. “… It’s important that we’re extremely strategic in the way that we practice and when we practice. Getting the whole group back together is very, very important. When and how we practice, you can be assured that the timing of this is being calculated as to when we practice and how we practice, because we have to be ready for Florida State.”
Notre Dame could not focus on the Seminoles until it ascertained the extent of its outbreak, which peaked with 39 players separated from the team at the start of this week, including 25 actively-positive cases. The Irish could not return to conditioning until the spread had been stemmed and its sources diagnosed. Otherwise, the problem would only be exacerbated and this season’s viability challenged further.
“Our (pregame) meal may have been a part of that,” head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt said. “I think there are probably some other opportunities to look at what they were doing and determine that there’s some areas where we were loose in maintaining the strict disciplined approach to what we were doing.
“There’s a component of, our testing regimen makes people feel comfortable with a negative test. What we’re realizing in this current situation is that a negative test on Friday doesn’t necessarily mean you are completely negative from the standpoint that you should (not) maintain the protocols that are clearly established. We may have gotten a little loose in some areas in terms of how we operate within our locker room, in terms of our mask compliance, just our spacing on the sidelines, activities that are being done there.”
That is human nature, to lean on a test result to bring peace of mind to combat understandable mental fatigue as we enter our seventh month of this pandemic’s grip in the United States. But to piece together a football season in such difficult circumstances, peace of mind is not an available luxury.
In this specific instance, Hunt said two positives from the Friday before Notre Dame played South Florida led to contact tracing on Saturday morning, part of what led to seven players within the Irish two-deep being deemed unavailable on Sept. 19. That contact tracing may not have been as thorough as combatting coronavirus requires, particularly in the details of who sat near whom during the pregame meal.
“We believe we had most of it, but there’s a possibility some of that contact tracing may not have grabbed all those people with regards to those positive tests from Friday afternoon,” Hunt said. “It’s the only component there. It’s speculative, it’s a guess, but it’s an educated guess that allowed some of those guys to then test positive Monday.”
From there, the aforementioned looseness inspired by a three-times-a-week testing protocol wreaked havoc.
“A negative test doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily free and clear from the virus at that point,” Hunt said. “It just might mean you had a viral load that was low enough that you didn’t test positive.”
Thus, all football activities paused last Tuesday and only resumed with some conditioning this past Monday. In that interim, the Irish dove into how widespread the outbreak was. That unknown was the force behind the immediate halt to football activities.
“Has your testing gotten it to a point where you have a handle on it and you know that you don’t have any more spread, that you have a clear handle on it?” Kelly said. “That’s part one.”
Part two is gauging what is available on the roster, if either line is significantly hampered, if players’ conditioning will be back up to par.
Those in isolation, the positives, could not condition at all for 10 days, while players in contact tracing-induced quarantine began modified conditioning after seven days if they logged two negative tests.
“Those guys are in great shape,” Kelly said. “When they get to the 14th day, they can hit the field running. Then it’s just about technique and execution and things of that nature.”
After team conditioning Monday and Wednesday, with weight training on Tuesday, that technique and execution will be the focus of Thursday’s practice. Kelly expects Notre Dame to practice today and tomorrow, weight train on Saturday and then have a live scrimmage on Sunday.
By then, the Irish may be without only 15 players.
“This will be unchartered territory from that perspective,” Kelly said of beginning again after this pause, of playing two games and then waiting three weeks for a third, of reintegrating portions of the roster in phases. “It’s different than preparing and being in camp and just hitting each other and then going to play the game. That’s the game of speed, the speed is different and you have to work through that.
“These guys have played the game, they know what the speed is, they know what they have to be ready for, tackling, things of that nature.
“We’re going to have to go against each other, we’re going to have to go live. There’s going to have to be a little bit of bowl game preparation here, if you will.
“There will be some challenges, but I think once the game gets going, this group has played a lot of football. I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to get up to snuff pretty quickly.”
EXACT TIMING OF ISOLATED RETURNS
Players who test positive go into isolation for a minimum of 10 days. Notre Dame has not yet had any players hospitalized from the coronavirus, though Hunt did say the majority have had mild-to-moderate symptoms. They “have done very well from a recovery process.”
In football terms, that recovery process begins with a release on the 10th of isolation, assuming the player is asymptomatic at that point. He goes through a cardiac screening process, complete with an EKG and an echocardiogram reviewed by a cardiologist based out of Indianapolis.
On Day 11, if you will, the player is allowed 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, per Hunt, before escalating to 50 percent of a normal practice workload on Day 12, 75 percent on Day 13 and, presuming all continues to go well, 100 percent activity on Day 14.
Meanwhile, players in quarantine, who never test positive, can begin modified workouts after receiving negative tests on both Day 4 and Day 7 of quarantine. On Day 14, they can return to football activities.
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ON-FIELD TRANSMISSION CONCERNS
When South Florida postponed its next game after facing the Irish, the consequences of what that suggested threatened the entire college football season. If the Bulls picked up coronavirus cases from playing Notre Dame, then every game would become a problem area.
“That would make this almost untenable if you were worried about on-field spread every game, as well,” Kelly said.
Instead, all indications are no on-field transmission occurred.
“When you have one team that is clearly, even though we tested on Friday night, there was obviously some chance there that could have spread, and it did not,” Kelly said. “… The way the game is played where there is not the duration of contact over a long period of time, it minimizes the spread, it appears that way.”
OTHER INJURY UPDATES
Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton (sprained ankle) and graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek (balky hamstring) are both full-go, per Kelly, after suffering those injuries in the season opener against Duke on Sept. 12.
Junior receiver Kevin Austin (broken foot) is in a running program, on track to return in a perhaps limited role against Florida State.