Notre Dame football tweaks COVID-19 protocols on its path to resuming season

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The greatest certainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is that plans change.

So Notre Dame football not holding its first practice Wednesday since the program suspended team activities Sept. 22 in response to a COVID-19 outbreak among its players, the plan head coach Brian Kelly shared with ESPN on Tuesday, didn’t spell bad news for the Irish.

Instead, No. 5 Notre Dame (2-0, 1-0 ACC) held a voluntary conditioning session Wednesday. That followed a conditioning activity Monday and a weight training session Tuesday. Then the first practice finally took place Thursday.

The Irish practiced Thursday with 29 players unavailable to participate in any form due to COVID-19 concerns. Eighteen of those players remained in isolation due to positive COVID-19 tests and the other 11 players remained in quarantine as a result of contact tracing. Fourteen of those players are expected to exit those stages of Notre Dame’s protocol within the next two days, ND head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt said Thursday in an online press conference.

The number of players in isolation and quarantine have decreased from 25 and 14, respectively, since Monday’s update from the program. Surveillance testing within the program on Monday and Wednesday produced no positive test results. The team will test again Friday.

“Currently we’ve had no hospitalizations,” Hunt said. “The majority of our players have had mild-to-moderate symptoms and have done very well from a recovery process.”

The process, as Hunt described, prevents players in isolation from participating in any physical activity for a minimum of 10 days. After that 10-day period, asymptomatic players are then put through a cardiac screening process, which is reviewed by Dr. Richard Kovacs, a cardiologist from Indianapolis who has overseen cardiac evaluations for the NFL Scouting Combine. If a player clears that screening, he can gradually increase his activity level across a few days before being cleared for a full practice.

Players placed in quarantine can start modified individual workouts as early as the seventh day, Kelly said. Then, when their quarantine ends after 14 days, they’re able to transition back to the practice field. With more players returning to the practice field in the coming days, the Irish should remain on track to host Florida State (0-2, 0-2 ACC) on Oct. 10.

After Thursday’s practice, Notre Dame has scheduled practice for Friday, weight training for Saturday and a live scrimmage for Sunday.

“Guys were excited about being back out there and conditioning, and they want to get back at it,” Kelly said. “So the energy is high. The morale is excellent. Guys know that there can’t be any margin for error, and they’ll follow that up.”

Notre Dame believes it has identified at least some of the contributing factors that led to its COVID-19 spread following an examination of the team locker room, housing, meals, hotel operations and on-field activities, Hunt said.

The Friday before the South Florida game on Sept. 19, two players tested positive. A total of 10 Notre Dame players were held out of the game, which included two other players who tested positive earlier in the week, but the contact tracing around those cases may have not eliminated as many players as it should have.

“We believed we had most of it and there’s a possibility that some of that contact trace may not have grabbed all those people with regards to those positive tests from the Friday afternoon test,” 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 on Monday.”

Seven players tested positive that Monday. Eighteen others tested positive throughout the week. Notre Dame previously went from mid-June, when it first started testing players, through Sept. 20 with 18 positive tests.

A major lesson, Hunt said, is that players shouldn’t let their guard down after testing negative.

“What we’re realizing in this current situation is that a negative test on Friday doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re completely negative from the standpoint of clearing,” Hunt said. “You should 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, our spacing on the sidelines and the activities that are being done there.

“These are certainly speculative, but as we look at the clusters that we had and the position groups that they were and how the contact traced the spread, there were areas that we can get better.

“A negative test doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily free and clear from the virus at that point. It just might mean you had a viral load that was low enough that didn’t test positive. We’re going to tighten those pieces up and have strict adherence to the policies and procedures that we had prior to this outbreak.”

The Irish will make tweaks to their protocols, but those won’t yet include changes to family members visiting players or testing frequency. Hunt said Notre Dame has not discovered any COVID-19 connections to players visiting with family members after games, which had been a concern of his prior to the season. The Irish aren’t yet ready to switch their tri-weekly surveillance testing to daily antigen testing for the entire team yet either.

Kelly previously told ESPN that the program identified a pregame team meal and a vomiting player on the sideline of the USF game as major factors in the program’s COVID-19 outbreak. Future team meals will be even more socially distant, Hunt said. The shifts in which players are allowed to use the locker room will become less crowded too.

“We’re going to spread out more on the sidelines with regards to chairs and benches, and really, really dig deep and hold our players into kind of a zero tolerance with regards to mask usage moving forward,” Hunt said. “Those are the areas that we’ve identified to try to help ourselves prevent this from happening again so that our guys continue to move forward through the season.

“They’ve done a great job through this. They’ve worked really hard over the last week to get this thing under control. I think we have one foot on the brake a little bit still, but I think all of us feel a lot better about where we’re at now relative to 10 days ago.”

The focus can never shift away from handling COVID-19, but Kelly has to balance that focus on preparing his team for Florida State. Beyond figuring out who will be available for the game, the team must figure out a way to make everyone available to play actually prepared to play.

Because the impact of Notre Dame’s midseason COVID-19 outbreak will be measured by what comes next. Aspirations for a national championship depend on it.

“We’ll see if it’s a setback or a pause,” Kelly said. “And how we play against Florida State will be the narrative that everybody writes relative to this either being a pause in dealing with COVID and the realities of it or it was a major setback.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Daelin Hayes walks with head coach Brian Kelly during a celebration of Juneteenth and walk for social justice by Irish football players on June 19 on the ND campus.