HOOVER, Ala. — The LSU football team has a vaccination rate above 90%, multiple sources confirmed with The Advocate, which means the Tigers have more flexibility within Southeastern Conference medical protocols and are less likely to possibly forfeit games if their schedule is disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday he's recommended not to reschedule games due to outbreaks within teams this season, emphasizing the need for teams to join public safety measures against a coronavirus pandemic that has surged once again with its deadly delta variant.
Sankey's proposal is yet another incentive for people to get vaccinated within a league that has no vaccination mandate. The SEC has already placed an 85% threshold that, if met, no longer requires teams to test for COVID-19 regularly or wear masks inside their facilities.
Sankey made it clear that the league is not prepared to jump through logistical hoops to accommodate disruptions now that vaccines are "widely available." The league still currently has its 53-man roster minimum requirement it had last season, Sankey said, but he has recommended to remove that minimum to further incentivize teams to get vaccinated.
"That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won't be rescheduled," Sankey said.
Six of the SEC's 14 football teams have reached 80% vaccination, Sankey said, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart confirmed Tuesday that the Bulldogs had a rate north of 85%.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron didn't offer an exact number on the team's vaccination when asked Monday, but he added "I think most of our guys have been vaccinated for COVID."
"And obviously that's a personal choice," Orgeron said. "But hopefully, hopefully towards the season, most of our guys decide to get vaccinated."
Multiple SEC games were postponed last season due to coronavirus outbreaks on football teams — LSU rescheduled its games against Alabama and Florida — and since the league designated two extra weeks for postponed games at the end of the season, only two games were outright canceled.
Sankey said the SEC will not set extra time aside again for this season.
"Vaccines are widely available," Sankey said. "They’ve proven to be highly effective, and when people are fully vaccinated we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’ spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience and to normal life.”
The seven-day average of total daily coronavirus cases in the nation has increased 69.3% to 26,306 over the last week, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and hospitalizations have increased 35.8% to an average of 2,794 new admissions per day.
The Louisiana Department of Health reported 1,325 more confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and hospitalizations and ventilator usage continues to surge in a state that has now surpassed 500,000 total suspected cases and nearly 10,000 confirmed deaths.
LDH reported that 711 patients were hospitalized with coronavirus as of Monday afternoon, the highest number since February, and multiple hospital officials have said the vast majority of patients are unvaccinated.
Of the 10 states with the nation's lowest rates of fully vaccinated people, six of those states host an SEC program. Alabama (33.7%), Mississippi (33.8%) and Arkansas (35.4%) are the three lowest, according to the Mayo Clinic, and Louisiana (36.2%) has the fifth-lowest rate.
Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, gave a sobering message during a press conference Friday while Louisiana's largest hospital was in the middle of admitting its largest surge of patients since cases last peaked in January.
"I want to be clear after seeing what I've seen the past two weeks," O'Neal said. "We only have two choices: we are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic. Or we are going to accept death."
Meanwhile, universities across the country are poised to return to on-campus, in-person learning. Athletic departments are announcing returns to full-capacity crowds and renewed amenities like concessions. The Rose Bowl, site of LSU's season-opener against UCLA on Sept. 4, is among the venues in recently rigid California to announce it will also operate at 100% capacity.
Sankey said the SEC is prepared to proceed as scheduled.
"What we'll see, I expect, is municipalities and public health officials, perhaps at the state level, continuing to adjust, which brings me back to the mantra of last year, which is we're going to prepare to play the season as scheduled," Sankey said, "and I'm convinced we'll move forward to the Labor Day weekend start, unlike last year, but we will have to adapt to the circumstances of COVID-19, of the virus."