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USC pauses football, men’s water polo workouts after positive coronavirus tests

Custodians make their way on the campus of USC.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Over 654 tests conducted since mid-July, USC had largely managed to mitigate the novel coronavirus from infiltrating its athletics workouts. While other programs across the country were shut down on account of the virus, USC recorded just one positive case between July 18 and Aug. 21, from a student who had yet to set foot on campus.

But that bubble burst on Wednesday, when eight athletes in football and men’s water polo tested positive for COVID-19, forcing USC to pause workouts in both sports until at least Monday.

The sudden influx of cases did little to damage the department’s confidence in its virus safety protocols. In a statement, athletic director Mike Bohn noted that USC has “effective mitigation strategies in place” and were choosing to pause workouts “out of an abundance of caution.” The cases had been contracted off-campus, USC said. Any chance of future exposure was “very low.”

Still, the sudden shutdown was a reminder of the razor-thin room for error with COVID-19 on college campuses, even in California, where workouts remain outdoors and noncontact.

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The pause comes two days after USC sent out a Student Health notice warning of “an alarming increase” in COVID-19 cases among students. Just one week into a semester taught almost entirely online, 43 cases had been identified and more than 100 students had been placed in a 14-day quarantine. All of those cases, the university said, were related to students living off-campus.

Just a week into fall semester, USC reported that 43 students had tested positive for COVID-19 and more than100 placed in quarantine because of exposure.

Among those now identified by USC are the eight athletes on its football and men’s water polo teams, all of whom have since been isolated. A person close to the situation confirmed that the shutdown was directly connected to the spread that began off-campus, where many students are still living in private apartments and houses.

In her note to students on Monday, Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health, warned of the perils of students gathering off-campus and sharing in activities at close contact.

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“We need every student’s support of these goals to succeed,” Van Orman said. “All USC students … are counting on you to make the right decisions, right now.”

USC athletes were asked to sign a “risk and shared responsibility acknowledgment” form as part of the pre-participation checklist they filled out before returning to campus. USC safety Isaiah Pola-Mao acknowledged last month that a violation of that agreement “almost seems inevitable.”

“I know people are going to want to go out and be out with their friends, but I think that’s just a sacrifice we’re going to have to make,” Pola-Mao said. “I don’t know if everyone will buy in, but we’re going to have to.”

Parties and college life go hand-in-hand. But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned collegiate revelry into a highly risky proposition. The first week of classes at USC offers insights into the social order.

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Athletes on both teams will receive rapid response tests to assure the spread of the virus has been contained. But with athletes living among other students in off-campus housing, the risk of community spread has grown considerably since the start of the semester, even as classes remain online and fall sports seasons are postponed until spring. The uncertainty has left some universities and athletic departments scrambling to deal with the onset of mass outbreaks.

At USC, a thorough set of safety protocols had put many athletes and coaches at ease since mid-June, when they began trickling onto campus for voluntary workouts. Daily wellness checks were required, along with weekly tests and daily temperature scans. A barcode scan was required to trace entry into McKay Center, where masks were worn at all times. Eight total athletes had tested positive since being welcomed back, but athletes largely suggested they felt safe on campus.

That safety was breached on Wednesday, shutting down football and men’s water polo workouts for at least five days. Unaffected by the outbreak, USC’s women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s basketball teams will continue with workouts.


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