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Virginia Tech outlines, defends COVID-19 safety procedures for football players in response to concerns

Virginia Tech outlines, defends COVID-19 safety procedures for football players in response to concerns

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Whit Babcock used the most fundamental, relatable and powerful example to describe his confidence in the Virginia Tech athletic department’s COVID-19 safety protocols.

“I also am a parent of a Division I student athlete who I love more than anything in the world,” said Babcock, whose son is a freshman linebacker at William & Mary. “And I would put him in our protocol any day of the week and sleep very soundly.”

Babcock and the department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Rogers, spoke with the media Wednesday afternoon, breaking more than three months of silence. While they cited the university’s interpretation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act for continuing to not disclose the results of their testing program, Rogers did outline how protocols work for the football team.

Rogers said all athletes are tested upon their initial return to campus and then again two weeks later, to account for their travel to campus and the virus’ potential incubation period. After that, Rogers said Tech uses a “concentrated surveillance model” that includes random testing to monitor the health of the program.

During the season, which the ACC hopes to kick off the week of Sept. 7-12, players would be tested three days before competition, because the NCAA and ACC have deemed football a “high risk” sport for COVID-19 spread.

“We’re running the play that was called as best practices,” said Babcock, who estimated the testing program for the fall and spring will cost “six figures.”

“We even go above and beyond what the requirements are. So, while we’re all anxious and watching it, I don’t know what we could do better.”

Tech’s procedures came under scrutiny this week after a former player, star cornerback Caleb Farley, opted out of the season and expressed concerns about the Hokies’ testing and practice protocols.

Farley wrote an essay that appeared Sunday on ProFootballTalk’s website. Farley wrote, “I started having deep concerns about staying healthy. Guys were going home, going to Myrtle Beach, coming back to campus, and we weren’t getting tested. We’re all together, working out, close to each other, and you have no real idea who might have it, if anybody might have it. One day I looked around, and we were like 100-deep in our indoor facility, no masks. My concern grew more and more.”

Asked specifically about the Myrtle Beach statement, Babcock said he could not say if that happened or did not, but that he believed if players did go to the known COVID hot spot, “it was a while back.”

Rogers also could not confirm if any football players had traveled to Myrtle Beach and then returned to campus. He said the program tries to educate the players on making good decisions and limiting their travel.

“I think there’s a lot of good work going on behind the scenes to try to mitigate that stuff,” Rogers said. “I think a lot of that stuff comes back to our education piece and having them do the right things when they leave campus.”

As for Farley’s concerns about being “100-deep in our indoor facility [with] no masks,” Babcock and Rogers said the Beamer Lawson practice facility is considered an open-air situation when the building’s large garage-style doors are open.

Rogers said multiple agencies, including the Virginia Department of Health, approved Tech’s use of the facility without masks.

“We didn’t come to that decision alone,” Rogers said. “I think that facility is phenomenal for a number of reasons, but number one, you can raise all those garage doors. You’ve got great open airflow in there, and it’s functionally considered an outdoor space with all that’s happening, which is great. Having that with the outdoor field we have functionally two outdoor spaces and do some physical distancing when we can.”

Neither Babcock nor Rogers could say what to expect next during this tumultuous time in college athletics. Babcock said the athletic department still doesn’t know if fans will be permitted at Lane Stadium this fall if there is a football season, saying the department has pegged 30-36 percent capacity as a target, if they are.

“Things have been a moving target since COVID started several months ago in this area,” Rogers said. “I don’t have a great answer, but I think we are doing as much as we can to keep it as safe as we can.”

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