Timeline of the UTEP-Rice Cancellation, Explained by UTEP
Since Saturday, the UTEP football team has been dealing with the news of multiple positive cases of COVID-19 which led to the suspension of the Rice game in Houston. However, on Monday night UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter revealed that on the second round of testing, all of those players that tested positive in Houston (using rapid antigen testing), tested negative in El Paso (PCR testing).
Let's take a stab at getting all the facts straight starting from last week with the help of quotes from Senter (JS) and head coach Dana Dimel (DD):
Wednesday, Nov. 25
All systems were a go for the Miners (3-4, 0-2 C-USA) to play their fifth straight road game against Rice. No positive cases of COVID-19. The several players that were out against UTSA were back in the lineup for Rice, according to Dimel. Wednesday was the last testing day in El Paso because of the Thanksgiving break on Thursday, Nov. 26. The team routinely gets tested every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, per C-USA guidelines.
JS: "We've been testing three times a week like clockwork, 6 AM Monday morning, 6 AM Wednesday morning. If we travel, we can do a PCR test Thursday evening or Friday morning, depending on if we're home or away. The challenge was Thursday was Thanksgiving, so a little bit of a challenge doing things like PCR testing when the entire university was closed for Thanksgiving and we're leaving the next morning."
Friday, Nov. 27
Skip on over to Friday. Actually, let's back-track before the season started. Dimel told media members on Monday that the program previously agreed to test in Houston months ago, per Rice's request for all of their opponents. Rice wanted to administer their opponents' tests themselves before any kickoff. The team boarded a plane and flew out to Houston with the intention to play Saturday's game without having tested on Friday. To be clear, the first test that Rice administered was a PCR test, which is said to be the most accurate form of testing for COVID-19.
DD: "Rice said they weren't going to play anybody unless they tested in Houston. We were so anxious to play I agreed to it. As we got closer, there are a lot of disadvantages to doing it, and every disadvantage to it show up to our football team on Saturday. Every reason you don't do it showed it on Saturday... Those are decisions I should have done a better job of than what I did."
JS: "We made the decisions we made in good faith and with all the information we had at the time. As I think about moving forward, I would have to think long and hard as to why we would do the things we do.
JS (Cont.): "There's not a checklist, there's not a playbook for any decision we're making on a daily basis. There's not. It's easy to think and sit around after the fact on a second decision, that's okay. I'll just tell you that we make the best decision thinking of the health and safety of our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff members. It's not just us, it's our opponents as well. I can tell you Rice cares about their student-athletes and staff. They're doing the best to protect themselves as well."
Saturday, Nov. 28 (morning)
Senter is right. There's no formal playbook, directive or anything mandated by the NCAA on what a university is supposed to do next. In an effort to try and keep the game intact, the Miners agreed to take a rapid antigen test and delay the start of the kickoff. Best case scenario, they get all the tests back and isolate the one player that tested positive. According to UTEP officials, there were 10 antigen tests that came back positive. However, the antigen test can pick up traces of COVID-19 and also numerous flu strains. It finally came down to the worst-case scenario for both sides—cancel the game.
Between dealing with a men's basketball postponement (Arizona), figuring out a replacement official for the women's basketball game on Saturday (yes, COVID-related), and having to figure out the best move for the football team, the athletic department had quite a strenuous weekend.
JS: "On Friday night, we're dealing with men's basketball having to cancel/postpone against Arizona when they have a positive test. For our women's basketball game, two of the three officials tested positive. We thought we were going to have to cancel the game but we were able to contact Conference USA and they were able to find another official... There were three significant issues within 12 hours."
DD: "There was a set of tests conducted on Friday and we only had one positive. Then we went and did a different form (of testing) on Saturday morning because of the urgency. And this form of testing can pick up all different strains of the virus, of any virus. So the positives we got, we're not sure if they are false positives or not."
JS: "Rice wanted to play the game, we wanted to play the game. I think the biggest takeaway that I see is that our protocols are working. We may not like them and they're frustrating. The truth is, if I told you that we had 10 positive antigen tests and we played, you all would be shellshocked. Well, we didn't do that because out of an abundance of caution, we know that wouldn't be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it turns out they were false positives. That's one of the challenges that doing the rapid antigen tests does. You could have false positives, you could've had false negatives.
Saturday, Nov. 28 (Afternoon/Evening)
The cancellation meant UTEP had to travel all the way back home. But what do you do if you're UTEP dealing with 10 positive antigen tests and contact tracing? The athletic department chose to isolate the 20-plus individuals that had tested positive or been close to someone who tested positive. UTEP's idea was to charter them on a bus to El Paso from Houston, using a company that came with all the proper PPE resources.
JS: "The bottom line is there are a lot of factors that go into the decision-making process. I can tell you there were eight people in a room debating the pros and cons of all the different things. Getting 15 passenger vans, getting the person who would drive the fans... We talked about renting cars. We could not in good conscience let any of the players get on a commercial plane and fly home if they tested positive. We couldn't put them on the team plane. The best thing we thought we could do is if we could get them all in one place and get them back to El Paso quarantined as quickly as possible so that on Monday, they could get tested. This isn't just one person's decision-making process. We had 23 individuals. We were very fortunate that we found a bus with the proper PPE, and they would be able to drive and drop our kids off after a 13-hour bus ride."
Monday, Nov. 30
Ah, testing day. This will be the tell-all for UTEP football. The athletic department administered PCR tests to everyone on the football team. All 10 of the previously positive tests (rapid antigen) on Saturday tested negative on Monday (PCR). That means Saturday's tests were false positives.
JS (In a statement): "This morning, we administered PCR tests to everyone in the travel party, except for the student-athlete who tested positive on Friday. The PCR test is recognized as the 'gold standard' of COVID testing. We have received the results, and all 10 of the individuals who tested positive with the antigen tests on Saturday tested negative today. The challenges associated with false positives with antigen tests have been widely publicized. The false positives we experienced illustrate the problem with antigen tests as a tool for decision making for athletics competition. We are working with our team doctors, sports medicine professionals, and campus officials to plan our return to practice and play for the football program."
JS: "We haven't had any problems with antigen tests all year so far. We haven't had any false positives. What's remarkable to us is that we had ten on this one trip. That's what was so remarkable to us. As it turns out, when we got everyone back home and we did the PCR tests here, we have ten false positives, unfortunately."
What's next moving forward?
No, the Southern Miss game (Friday, Dec. 4) will not be played. That game is still canceled, per Senter. The hope is that the team can still finish the season against North Texas on Saturday, Dec. 12 for their finale. UTEP has now had six different cancellations or postponements this year with Souther Miss (2x), North Texas, Florida International, Rice and UAB. Once Dimel gives the green light, the team will return to practice. The 20-plus players that tested negative for COVID-19 will still be quarantined, according to Senter, and based on their results for Thursday's testing day, they could rejoin the team with another negative test.
JS: "For the 20 individuals who came in contact with or had a positive antigen test, out of an abundance of caution, we're going to continue to have them quarantined and retest them on Thursday to make sure we have a second negative PCR test. They will come out of quarantine if they are negative. The rest of the team will come out of quarantine as soon as coach Dimel lets them know. Then we'll have our scheduled Thursday test."
DD (On playing North Texas): "I think we'll be ready to play, I'm hoping that," he said. "You don't know how many new positives you're going to have. We've stayed relatively healthy at the testing site we use. If we continue to maintain that I have every confidence we'll be able to play the game."