The science behind the ACC navigating a football season during COVID-19

ACC Football

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, center, hugs wide receiver Amari Rodgers, right, during warm-ups before the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (Jeff Siner/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Dr. Cameron Wolfe thought the Atlantic Coast Conference could play a football season safely during a pandemic.

“I was confident that it could happen. I think the emphasis needs to be on ‘could,’” Wolfe said in an interview with CBS 17 News.

It took a lot of science for the ACC to make it through a football schedule marked by a string of stops and starts.

Of the 96 regular-season games that were scheduled, 85 were played with every team getting in at least eight games. Four teams still have bowl games coming up, including North Carolina in the Orange Bowl and N.C. State in the Gator Bowl on Saturday, a day after Clemson and Notre Dame each play their College Football Playoff semifinals.

Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and infectious disease specialist, chaired the conference’s COVID-19 medical advisory board, a team of doctors and medical experts working behind the scenes to share advice and best practices to combat the health crisis.

Wolfe said in August that doctors learned enough about COVID-19 during the first six months of the pandemic to manage the additional risk in football, where close, interpersonal contact is an unavoidable part of the game.

Looking at the season through that epidemiological lens, it’s not easy to define what a successful season would — or should — look like.

“I guess it’s from whose perspective, isn’t it?” Wolfe asked. “If you view the perspective from the athletes, they were quite clear in their opinion early on that they wanted to try to play, if playing safely could be done. We thought it could be and I think we largely achieved that.

“I think if you view it from the lens of, ‘Can you use athletics to demonstrate to the community that things can happen safely?’” he added. “We’ve had to have some pauses. … Athletic departments have been instructive to their surrounding campuses, in some instances, or at least have had to sort of really try to work hard on their bubble structure in ways that we’ve had to adapt as we’ve gone along. So has it been perfect? No, but as I said in the beginning we didn’t anticipate that this would be straightforward.”

The group meets weekly to discuss the best ways to manage risk for players, coaches and staff members, and shares its findings with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help shape how quarantine and other procedures could work for the rest of the community.

Wolfe pointed to “a pretty rigorous set of mitigation efforts” including testing players three times a week to give everyone involved at least a measure of confidence that players wouldn’t be on the field inadvertently with someone carrying the virus.

“I think when we sat down, our first and foremost mission at the start of the year was, ‘We’ve got to be able to play this safe,’ and if either team is nervous, then we have to say, ‘Right, this is a pause,’” Wolfe said. “To give that flexibility to each team, medical physicians group on each campus, each coach, and say, ‘If you’re not comfortable, this is OK.’”

That didn’t always go smoothly. 

The most notable dustup came when Florida State backed out of its game against Clemson hours before kickoff after one of the Tigers who traveled to the game while symptomatic tested positive for COVID-19.

That prompted Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to accuse the FSU administration of forfeiting, and say both that “COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game” and that the money the Tigers spent to travel to Tallahassee, Florida, was “gone out the window.” 

In response, Florida State coach Mike Norvell said that “football coaches are not doctors” even though “some of us think we are.”

Wolfe said the group “intentionally distanced themselves” from any game-time decisions.

“We wanted individual teams and individual medical groups to have the ability to say, ‘I’m not comfortable here, for whatever reason,’” he said, “and that followed through in each of those games.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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