Even though we are two weeks out from actual football being played-yes, two weeks from tonight UNC will be in Blacksburg to face off against Virginia Tech-one thing had been missing. Up until now, coaches across the conference had been guessing to some extent about what the conference would do, both about vaccinated players and what would happen if COVID-19 caused players to miss games. Last season, the schedule was built with some flexibility to make sure that games could be rescheduled.
This season, though, no such quarter will be given. As the conference explains in the new guidelines:
1. If a 2021 ACC game cannot be played on its originally scheduled date by a team unable to play due to an insufficient number of available players related to COVID-19, that team shall be deemed to have forfeited, with a loss assigned to the team unable to play and a win assigned to its scheduled opponent, with both the loss and win, respectively, applied to the conference standings.
2. If a 2021 ACC game cannot be played on its originally scheduled date due to any factor(s) directly associated with a Game Discontinuation Consideration as listed in the current ACC Medical Advisory Group (MAG) Report, the Conference’s sport rescheduling policy shall apply.
3. If a 2021 ACC game cannot be played on its originally scheduled date due to both teams being unable to play due to an insufficient number of available players related to COVID-19, both teams shall be deemed to have forfeited, with a loss assigned to both teams and applied to the conference standings.
It’s important to note here that the onus is still on the schools to do the testing and report positive results like last year, so last year when a team was starting at a lost season they could miraculously “not have enough to play,” and not have to suffer a loss. Now, that school would be staring at a loss on their record, so there’s a decent chance you won’t be seeing nearly as many people suddenly drop out the day of a game.
There’s also a spelled out guideline for teams in terms of total vaccination rate:
While fully vaccinated individuals will no longer be required to participate in a surveillance testing regime under the latest revisions, testing must still be administered to unvaccinated student-athletes, coaches and sport support staff who have significant interaction with student-athletes, individuals designated in a team’s travel party and anyone else who is in regular close contact with student-athletes, as determined by the institution.
Unvaccinated individuals on a team with a vaccination rate less than 85 percent, must be tested a minimum of three times per week with a molecular (PCR) test. Unvaccinated individuals on a team with a vaccination rate at or greater than 85 percent, must be tested once per week. Additional testing of unvaccinated individuals is at the discretion of the institution.
Teams that have a vaccination rate of 85 percent or higher among their student-athletes, and have no active cases, may relax mitigation strategies around team activities (e.g., spacing/masking in meetings, at meals, while traveling). In all sports, the masking of any individual, vaccinated or unvaccinated, (student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, non-coaching personnel, officials) permitted in the team bench area or within the playing enclosure will be at the discretion of the home institution.
It’s crystal clear what the goal of this policy is: to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Note that if a team clears that 85% hurdle even the ones left unvaccinated only have to deal with a nasal swab once a week, and the team as a whole isn’t required to do the normal social distancing or mask measures. For teams under that threshold, their day-to-day will look a lot like last year, which many coaches found burdensome to deal with, and players that don’t have the vaccine will have to be tested three times a week. Those unvaccinated will also have to deal with contract tracing.
The Delta variant that has shown to be more contagious is the wild card here, and these guidelines do feel more like they were grounded in the time immediately after vaccines became available instead of now. That said, data keeps coming out that those who are vaccinated fare so much better should they end up with a breakthrough infection than those who aren’t vaccinated, and that’s clearly the goal of this policy.
Mack Brown has said that by the time the season starts the team will be at that 85% number. That speaks to the idea that they weren’t there at the start, but with the timeframe needed to be considered fully vaccinated, several players were inoculated once they got to campus. We’ll see if the team is as fortunate this year as they were last at avoiding significant COVID issues.