Ed Orgeron preseason practice

LSU coach Ed Orgeron observes practice outside the football operations building on Aug. 21, 2020.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron told reporters Tuesday morning he thinks most, not all, of the football team's players have caught coronavirus already, and that the remaining players who haven't gotten sick have been told to be careful so they're eligible for games.

Orgeron said, as of now, the team has "about three or four guys" who have COVID-19, and the team does not have "a lot of guys in quarantine."

"I think most, not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it," Orgeron said. "So hopefully they won't catch it again, and hopefully they're not out for games."

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LSU's athletic department hasn't publicly released information on coronavirus cases and has declined to confirm specifics on outbreaks.

Asked to clarify whether LSU's players contracted the virus before they arrived on campus or when they returned, Orgeron said "it's been a process."

"I'm not going to say all of them," Orgeron said. "But some players have caught it. I don't know the percentage. Hopefully that once you catch it, you don't get it again."

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The university started reporting aggregate positive coronavirus cases for the first time Aug. 15 when students began returning to campus. Since then, LSU has reported 754 total positive cases with 50 positive results in between Sept. 11 and 13.

Orgeron's update revealed the LSU football team's case totals were higher than what was previously publicly known, and the news follows months of public speaking events in which Orgeron said the program could handle outbreaks.

LSU's football team had an initial spike of coronavirus cases earlier this summer. The total number of cases focused around a group of five to six players, a source told The Advocate in June. No players were hospitalized. Every case showed mild symptoms.

At the time, Sports Illustrated reported at least 30 members of LSU's football team were isolated because they either tested positive for COVID-19 or contacted others who tested positive.

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Orgeron later said most of the team's cases resulted from players attending bars in Tigerland, a student-focused nightlife area that the Louisiana Department of Health announced June 19 produced more than 100 positive cases.

In early July, Orgeron said reports on the number of players who tested positive were too high and the football program's coronavirus case numbers were "way down" from its initial spike.

Weeks later, at a roundtable event at Tiger Stadium that included Vice President Mike Pence, Orgeron said the football program had its initial spike under control and that the football season should still proceed.

"I don't think we can take this away from our players, take this away from our state and our country," Orgeron said then. "We need football. Football is the lifeblood of our country."

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Then, in LSU's second week of preseason camp, all but four LSU offensive linemen were in quarantine after they either tested positive for COVID-19 or were determined to have high-risk exposure.

The virus' effect on the position group outlined a practical football program, as well as a health issue: Without enough personnel, a unit can't properly function, and a team may have to postpone a game.

Players who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for at least 10 days after their positive test, according to Southeastern Conference protocols. Symptoms have to subside for at least 24 hours without medication before those players can return to practice. Individuals with high-risk exposure must quarantine for 14 days.

According to the SEC guidelines, teams are required to test up to three times a week. However, players who test positive for COVID-19 don't have to test for 90 days from the time their symptoms first presented.

Orgeron said Tuesday that, because of this rule, he feels most of the players who have caught COVID-19 are going to be eligible for games when the season begins Sept. 26, when LSU hosts Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium.

"We look at the players that haven't caught it," Orgeron said. "We talk to them about being very, very careful so they're eligible for games. We know that with the players haven't caught it, we have to have some backups in their position ready in case they catch it."

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Last week, LSU announced that on-campus tailgating was banned and Tiger Stadium will start the season at 25% capacity because of restrictions with the coronavirus pandemic. According to the university's safety procedures and guidelines, an estimated 25,000-person crowd will be grouped in small numbers and spaced six feet apart in the stadium.

Among other restrictions, fans will be required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth while on campus and inside Tiger Stadium. Multiple LSU officials said there will be more event management staffing to enforce the mask mandates, social distancing rules and seating arrangements.

Interim LSU president Tom Galligan told reporters last week he was confident fans will be able to keep six feet apart, and, "if we have to be more forceful" with enforcement, "we will."

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Dr. Alex Billioux, Louisiana's top public health official, said he advised LSU and other sports organizations that there still is a risk for potential spread of COVID-19 by hosting large crowds.

Billioux said with crowds of 25,000 — even if everyone says they have no symptoms, even if they are screened for temperature at the gates — the state's case ranges indicate that anywhere from 150 to 500 fans will already have COVID-19 before they enter the stadium.

"There will be outbreaks related to these football games," said Billioux, the assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health's Office of Public Health. "The question is how big will they be?"

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LSU won't be alone in hosting fans. Every SEC team except Vanderbilt will host fans in stadium capacities that range from 20-25%. Tens of thousands of people will visit the league's campuses.

In a project published last weekend, The Advocate mapped out anonymous cell phone tracking data to illustrate how far people travel to attend SEC football games, and it showed 69% of in-state visitors to Tiger Stadium on game day came from outside of East Baton Rouge Parish. Of total devices detected, 23% came from out of state.

SEC members have made efforts to limit traveling fans. Half of the schools have eliminated single-game tickets, restricting entrance mostly to season-ticket holders, students, plus a 500-ticket allotment for the visiting team's family members.

The in-state travel is still problematic, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean at Emory University's School of Medicine.

Del Rio serves on the NCAA's COVID-19 advisory panel, and in August, he and NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline warned the spread of coronavirus is still a major hurdle for college sports to overcome.

Among other recommendations, Del Rio said communities should have fewer than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 population to safely proceed with contact sports.

No county or parish with an SEC school meets that threshold, according to Covid Act Now, a data resource dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic. Nine counties have at least 30 new cases per 100,000, and Clarke County, Georgia, where the University of Georgia is located, has surged from 31.9 new daily cases to 83.7 in the past two weeks.

"Normal is not where we are right now," Del Rio said. "We continue to pretend that life is normal when life is not normal."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.