Should Big Ten football put community COVID rates in its game plan? Officials say 'yes'

Craig Lyons
Lansing State Journal

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the Big Ten's COVID testing metrics.

EAST LANSING – A surge in COVID-19 cases in Greater Lansing won't stop the Michigan State Spartans' football opener, but some health officials and city leaders want that to change.

The Spartans are cleared to take the field against Rutgers' Scarlet Knights at noon Saturday even though Ingham County is at the second-highest risk level under measurements health officials use to assess how well controlled the coronavirus is across the state.

That's because the Big Ten's measurements for conducting fall sports look at athlete and staff infections, but don't consider the presence of the virus in the broader community.

Mayors and local health officials want the Big Ten to create a standard that assesses the danger COVID-19 poses in the community, not just on the field.

“We would like them to set that benchmark so that basically the Big Ten has established if a community or a locale that this game is to be played in exceeds these metrics, then that game can’t be played in that community,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.

Sparty wears a Spartans mask on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing.

The problem is that on game days, people are likely to gather, getting together indoors or going out to bars and restaurants, Vail said. Those behaviors are likely to continue spreading the virus, she said.

East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens said he doesn’t think having a football season is a bad idea. The games have an economic benefit to the community and it’s a morale boost for people dealing with quarantine and isolation.

“It’s just doing it in a right and safe way,” Stephens said.

Stephens and other mayors near Big Ten universities sent a letter asking the conference to adjust its COVID policies to include a metric for community spread of the virus.

Stephens said such a standard could provide an incentive for people to take the proper precautions so football can continue.

“What we’re looking for is cooperation,” Stephens said. “We’re all in it for the good of the communities.”

The Big Ten did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Spartan Stadium on the MSU campus is used as a COVID-19 testing site on what would normally be game day Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.

Only positive cases among athletes, staff affect sports schedules

The Big Ten rolled out its COVID response plan in August when the conference announced a shortened fall schedule for sports after previously announcing it would suspend athletics competitions to the coronavirus.

The new plan required daily antigen testing of student athletes, coaches and staff starting Sept. 30. If a student athlete tests positive, they cannot return for 21 days.

More:Michigan State athletics see drop in positive COVID-19 cases

The results of the daily antigen testing also determine if a team is able to continue practicing or playing games. Those decisions are based on two metrics:

  • The first compares the number of positive tests against the total tests administered for each by sport. MSU tests athletes, coaches and staff six days a week and all those tests are included.
  • The second calculation compares the number of positive tests against the number of athletes, coaches and staff involved in each sport.

If positivity levels exceed 5% on the first metric and 7.5% on the second, then games, practices and meetings for that sport must be suspended for a minimum of seven days.

MSU Athletics reported 3 of 81 students tested positive for the virus when given a polymerise chain reaction (PCR) test last week. A PCR test is used when the antigen test returns a potentially positive test result.

No staff members tested positive for the virus.

East Lansing COVID cases increasing

The 48823 ZIP code, which includes much of East Lansing, has between 1,701 and 1,710 COVID cases – the highest number for a ZIP code in Ingham County. 

Health officials have reported 1,686 MSU-tied COVID cases since July. MSU-tied cases are 40% of Ingham County's total cases since the pandemic began in March.

The outbreak at MSU peaked the week of Sept. 7, with 640 positive COVID cases. That’s declined over the last month and the ICHD and MSU reported 25 cases the week of Oct. 12.

Vail said Tuesday that MSU's outbreak is "trailing off," but has previously expressed concern that MSU students aren’t getting tested for the virus to avoid self-isolation or quarantine. If so, the virus could be more prevalent than the testing data shows.

More:As MSU-related COVID-19 cases drop quickly, health official worried some aren't testing

MSU reported a nearly 6% positivity rate, which includes samples from on-campus testing sites and other samples sent to the university.

Overall, Ingham County is at a 5% positivity rate, according to Vail.

Signage seen near the MSU Union in East Lansing Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.  One of four pictured were wearing masks.

MSU says precautions in place

“The university is adhering to the strict guidelines laid out in the Big Ten’s testing protocol for student-athletes and staff,” MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said. “That said, the university is taking several additional steps to reduce transmission within our local community, regardless of whether it is game day or not.”

The university is discouraging large gatherings on and off campus and working with the city and health department to hold people accountable for violating public health orders and local ordinances, Olsen said.

Those health orders include limits on the size of both indoor and outdoor gatherings, capacity limits in bars and restaurants, and a requirement that people wear masks both indoors and outdoors when on campus or in East Lansing's Downtown Development Authority boundaries.

“These orders and ordinances do not disappear on game day, and the university will continue to strictly enforce them among our students, faculty and staff to limit transmission within our community,” Olsen said.

The university also has a disciplinary process for those who violate a "community compact" by failing to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols.

East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens, center, hands out masks to MSU students at the Albert Avenue Square during welcome weekend on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in East Lansing.

Mayors seek stronger response to block community spread

Mayors of 12 cities near Big Ten schools sent a letter to the organization asking for added precautions to protect against the spread of COVID-19, including Stephens and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor.

Mayors of cities near Rutgers, the University of Illinois and the University of Nebraska did not sign the letter.

“While we are all excited for football games to begin, we must accept that this activity poses potential new obstacles as we attempt to slow the spread of this virus,” the mayors wrote in the letter.

The letter asked the Big Ten to give more weight to potential community spread of the virus and better account for the prevalence of the COVID-19 on decisions on whether to continue holding games. The mayors urged the Big Ten to add a metric for percent positivity rate in a community into its COVID response plan.

The mayors also asked the Big Ten to release game times and schedules as early as possible, and play few or no games during the late afternoon or evening. The letter said later games are associated with increased activity.

“We know the history of football games within our cities. They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and the consumption of alcohol,” the letter read. “These activities within our communities have also been associated with an increased spread of COVID-19.”

Contact reporter Craig Lyons at 517-377-1047 or calyons@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @craigalyons.