So far this semester, University of New Mexico Athletics has been spared any major COVID-19 outbreaks, as the program adheres to NCAA and Mountain West Conference guidelines.
UNM Athletics director Eddie Nuñez told the Daily Lobo on Aug. 28 that the University is complying with the college sporting body’s stringent regulations, but that hasn’t prevented at least 11 UNM athletes, staffers and/or coaches from testing positive for the virus as of the end of August.
These cases are not unique in the wider college athletics landscape. As of the beginning of August, “at least 800 college football players have tested positive for the virus nationwide,” according to Sports Illustrated. However, they warned that “the actual number is likely much higher.”
Nuñez explained that they will likely test everyone affiliated with Athletics, including coaches and staffers, at least one more time before competition starts again.
“When we start competing, then the NCAA rules mandate that we test every week. That’s going to be costly, and it’s also a lot of work, so we are trying to figure that out right now — I don’t have any answers yet — several alternatives, but no answers right now,” Nuñez said.
According to the NCAA’s guidelines, once sports return to the field, court or pitch, athletes will be required to test negative before every game.
“Testing and results should be obtained within 72 hours of competition in high contact risk sports,” according to the NCAA’s website.
High contact risk sports include basketball, field hockey, football, ice hockey, lacrosse, rowing, rugby, soccer, squash, volleyball, water polo and wrestling, according to the NCAA.
Nuñez said in an interview that student-athletes — regardless of where they came from in or out of state — were quarantined for 14 days after their arrival on campus.
During the initial quarantine — about day six or seven — student-athletes all got tested.
UNM men’s basketball player Makuach Maluach said that athletes have been tested every month.
“We get tested a lot,” Maluach said.
Nuñez said that so far they haven’t been doing in-house tests, but rather have been taking advantage of public testing options when they become available.
Most UNM student-athletes have been going to the fairgrounds, “just like anyone else,” Nuñez said.
“Originally we wanted to do (the testing) in-house, but because of the lack of tests, we didn’t want to convolute the situation,” Nuñez said. “We are very appreciative of the opportunity to do what we are doing.”
After they get their negative test results, Nuñez said UNM athletes then participate in the team physical, “just like they would any other year.”
If they test positive, on the other hand, they then go into isolation and Athletics traces whoever they have been around and “makes sure everyone is okay.”
“After that, we manage it on a day-by-day basis: They don’t leave their apartment or their rooms, food is brought to them, you know, everything that needs to be done,” Nuñez said.
As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while surface contact may be a risk, “The primary and most important mode of transmission of COVID-19 is human-to-human contact.”
Maluach confirmed that UNM men’s basketball players have been following rigid protocols in order to limit the potential spread of the virus.
“Right now it’s been really strict in terms of what times you can go to the gym, what you can do and how long you can be there,” Maluach said.
Nuñez confirmed that UNM student-athletes are living and working out in “pods” of four to five people.
“While they are lifting or running, anything that they do is within that group,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez also said that athletes are also wearing masks wherever they go — a requirement under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders.
“Physical distancing and masks/cloth face coverings are an integral part of athletics, and should be practiced whenever feasible,” according to the NCAA website.
Nuñez said that the exception to that rule is when they are with their pod groups.
He reiterated that anyone who has any interaction with the students has to be tested, but if they already know everyone in the group is negative then they are not requiring them to wear masks.
“Anything that’s within an interior space, we try to get them to wear masks, but since they are with their own group then — as long as we know everyone is negative — we are willing to allow them to be mask free,” Nuñez said.
Because of the nature of the virus’ airborne spread, the NCAA is advising that “training should occur outdoors. When not feasible, indoor training with good ventilation is preferable to indoor training with poor ventilation.”
“We had one potential staff member — this is a month and a half ago or so — who was at home, wasn’t feeling well and went and got tested. He hadn’t been in the office for four or five days prior to that, but we still disinfected the building and there were no issues — no one else had it,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez said that despite all the extra precautions, UNM Athletics hasn’t yet been faced with any additional costs — a stark contrast to other universities around the country.
“It really hasn’t cost anything more as far as for the testing, for the quarantines — I mean, we bought masks and some COVID related things for our kids to have so that they have masks at all times, but it really hasn’t amounted to much,” Nuñez said.
He explained that they are redirecting staff time to COVID-19 testing and cleaning.
“All of our facilities are tested and cleaned on a regular basis,” Nuñez said. “Since we don't have any events, it actually allows our staff to focus on this more than preparing for an event — we’ve kind of redirected our resources.”
“COVID-19 spread is greatest when individuals are in a crowded environment with prolonged close contact,” according to the NCAA.
Maluach said that basketball players aren’t having full team practices on the court right now.
“We haven’t practiced as a team at all this year,” Maluach said.
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen