NC State: Trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the program

N.C. State returned to football practice this week, which created excitement among Wolfpack fans.

The ACC schedules were released a few days later and that only added to the excitement level. But the looming cloud of COVID-19 over college football still seems like more of a threat than facing Virginia Tech in week one.

With N.C. State among the colleges that are welcoming students back to campus during the next few weeks, many wonder how that will affect the possible spread of COVID and possibly interfere with the start of the season.

Since returning to the Murphy Center, the Wolfpack staff has made sure to do its part by taking extra precautions around the football building to make sure players stay safe. But is it enough and will it even matter once regular students return in full?

N.C. State was the first Triangle university to start welcoming students back to campus. The last week of July, freshmen started filling up the dorms and the school had appointment times the following 10 days for students to move in. The football players returned to campus in June and started workouts shortly after. Official practice with all 123 players on the roster started Tuesday.

Classes at N.C. State start Monday. In a Zoom call with the media on the opening day of practice, redshirt junior Thayer Thomas said the team has done a good job of staying isolated, but admitted that’s a lot easier without the campus being fully functional. Since returning to campus for workouts, N.C. State athletics has administered two rounds of COVID-19 tests to players, coaches and staff. Overall, the school has done 595 tests with seven positives. It was not reported how many, if any of the positive tests, were from football players.

Several Power 5 football teams have reported numbers in the mid 20s to low 30s.

Around the football facility, the Wolfpack have taken extra steps to attempt to prevent an outbreak. It starts with the new visors on helmets, which covers the mouth.

“It’s definitely tougher to breathe in with the visor,” senior wide receiver C.J. Riley said in a Zoom call with the media. “But it’s just something we have to do if we want to play.”

Alim McNeill, a junior defensive tackle from Raleigh, said the staff makes sure the offense and defense never cross paths away from the practice fields, especially inside the building, to avoid clusters of large groups. The meeting rooms have been changed, Riley said, to allow players more space to spread out. And anytime they are inside masks are mandatory.

When practice is over, the team takes their helmets and jerseys off and sits them on a chair inside the indoor practice facility where they are sprayed down and sanitized. If the defense goes first, the offense has to wait outside.

“They won’t let the offense in the building so we won’t collide and mix groups,” McNeill said. “So we won’t have a lot of people in the same area.”

When the players go inside for their meals, the cafeteria is sectioned off. It used to be set up so that it was adjacent to the players’ lounge and the team could congregate there. Not anymore.

“They kind of section it off by your roommates and who you are staying with,” sophomore running back Zonovan “Bam” Knight said on a Zoom call. “Trying to keep people from crossing paths and cross contaminating. That’s been an adjustment for us, but I think it will be beneficial in the long run.”

Once classes start, players can’t be shielded from the rest of the student body. Some will take classes online, but most will be back in the classroom setting. A lot of them will be walking across campus daily, interacting with other students. The university is limiting the number of people in residential common areas, including lounges and laundry rooms, and says dorms and bathrooms will be cleaned more frequently. Even with limitations handed down by the school, how do you guarantee the players will make the right decisions?

“We make sure we hone in on guys from doing stuff that’s not smart, that will hinder us from having a season,” McNeill said. “Nobody wants to be that guy to possibly catch it or spread it or anything like that. Nobody wants to be that guy.”

Each position unit has set up a GroupMe app on their phone where they can send messages to multiple teammates at once, and that’s one way to try and keep teammates in check. But ultimately, it comes down to the person being smart.

“At the end of the day it’s up to the players because we can only hold them accountable so much,” Knight said. “Ultimately it’s going to come down to the individual player and making that sacrifice.”

Local universities say they plan to track coronavirus cases and identify others at risk through contact tracing. But with the current campus guidelines and privacy restrictions, the campus won’t necessarily notify the public or an individual if someone in their class or dorm has COVID-19.

Universities are relying on students and faculty to self-report their coronavirus cases to the university.

For the time being, what the football team has been doing is working. But there will certainly be new challenges once classes start.

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.

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