The Southeastern Conference will coordinate coronavirus testing at least twice a week during the fall season with its 14 members through a third-party provider, and all coaches, staff and personnel will be required to wear face coverings on the sideline.
The SEC released its official coronavirus medical protocols Friday morning, and the rules reflect many of the guidelines the NCAA issued in mid-July. The protocol covers all fall sports, including the football season scheduled to begin Sept. 26.
"Our health experts have guided us through each stage of preparation for the safe return of activity," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement, "and, together with the medical staffs embedded within our athletics programs, we will continue to monitor developments around the virus and evolve our plan to meet the health needs of our student-athletes."
The SEC's protocol says high risk athletic programs, like football, must tested weekly during preseason practice — scheduled to begin Aug. 17 — and they must be tested twice weekly during the season.
Football programs will typically be tested six days and three days before each game. The third-party testing group will pick up the two tests, but the SEC's medical task force recommends that teams find an alternative testing method in order to test people a third time during the week.
"That will provide for the reliability and rapid response necessary for diagnostic testing in a timeframe closer to competition," the league's news release said.
Volleyball and soccer programs will also be tested twice weekly. One test must be three days before the first game of the week. The SEC's task force also recommends these sports find an alternative for a third test.
Cross country will only be tested once a week, the league said, three days before each competition.
The SEC's testing protocol is in sync with the Big Ten's requirement for its high contact risk sports to test players multiple times in a week. The Big Ten released a COVID-19 medical protocol Wednesday, which required its high contact risk sports to test "a minimum of twice weekly."
College football's major conferences appear to be taking a step further than what the NCAA suggested within the coronavirus guidelines the governing body released in mid-July. The NCAA advised teams to test players for the virus within 72 hours of competition for high contact risk sports — a request that only includes one test per week.
Even that advisement led smaller conferences to cancel football in the fall. PCR tests, the NCAA's preferred method, can cost from $100 to $110, and several schools could not afford testing hundreds of players over several months or acquire the medical resources to do so.
The SEC's announcement also comes two days after South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said the league plans to test players on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays of game weeks.
Member schools within the Big Ten and the SEC have deep pockets. Some, like LSU, have annual profit margins that exceed $50 million.
The ability to test up to three times in a week helps out one of the major issues with the NCAA's 72-hour guideline. With just one test three days before a game, it's possible a player could unknowingly contract the virus and have it lie dormant until after the player is tested before their competition.
An SEC school will now receive a more accurate picture of the health of their team and can act more quickly to prevent viral spreads when players test positive.
Working with a third-party testing organization also appears to relieve the strain multiple tests would have made on local PCR labs. Asymptomatic athletes getting routine tests would have added to the region's total tests, and turnaround times in the SEC region has already slowed down during recent surges of positive cases.
The SEC's protocol is consistent with some of the NCAA's medical guidelines. People who test positive and are asymptomatic must isolate at least 10 days from the positive test. But the SEC's recovery window for symptomatic infections is shorter.
The NCAA says symptomatic positives must isolate for at least 10 days from onset of symptoms, and at least 72 hours should pass since recovery. The SEC's protocol reduces the recovery window to at least 24 hours.
The SEC and NCAA protocols both say all individuals with high-risk exposure also should be quarantined for 14 days. Both defined "high-risk" as any situation with more than 15 minutes of close contact (less than 6 feet apart) with an infectious individual.
The two-week time frame for high-risk exposure can be potentially devastating to a football team in the middle of a season, especially if swaths of players are in contact with an individual who tests positive.
Players who are quarantining also can't "test out" of quarantine. If they don't test positive for the virus, they still must fulfill the 14-day period before they can return to play.
The SEC also adopted the NCAA's five major points for when it will consider discontinuing games:
• A lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high contact risk cases on campus.
• Unavailability or inability to perform symptomatic, surveillance and pre-competition testing when warranted and as per recommendations in this document.
• Campus-wide or local community test rates that are considered unsafe by local public health officials.
• Inability to perform adequate contact tracing consistent with governmental requirements or recommendations.
• Local public health officials stating that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19.
The league also limited a school's travel party for game trips. Travel groups should be limited to only the team, coaches and essential personnel. Everyone else, such as families, radio crew, boosters, school administrators, should travel separately.
If someone within the athletic program tests positive before the trip, they will not be allowed to travel and will immediately begin isolation.
If someone tests positive while on the road, they won't participate in any part of the competition and will begin isolation. The local health authorities of the home team must also be notified, and the traveling team must send the person back home as soon as possible.
Each SEC school is also required to designate a COVID-19 protocol oversight officer, who will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the protocol.