Aerial view of the University of Texas campus including the Tower as seen on Sunday April 23, 2017. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas signs ‘mid six-figure’ deal with Austin start-up to handle twice-weekly COVID testing

University labs are now up to capacity, but in July, a team doctor told AD Chris Del Conte ‘I can’t wait around’

Posted August 8th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • “The logistics of delivering testing for athletes is really tough,” Brady told the American-Statesman during an interview Friday.
  • Herman on players' feelings: “I think they feel as good as it can. I think that’s all they expected.”
  • In truth, no one can know with total conviction whether an athlete will be COVID-free during competition this fall and beyond.

As part of the NCAA’s safe return-to-play guidelines, all athletes are to be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours before competition. Essentially, that means football players must be tested on Thursdays, two days before kickoff.

Every athletic director faces a perplexing question: How do you get 85 test results back within hours when many in the general public are waiting days for theirs?

At Texas, you pay for it.

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The UT athletic department has entered into an agreement worth “mid six-figures” for the fall semester with Austin-based start-up Campus Health Project to test athletes twice a week, according to company CEO and Texas ex Chuck Brady.

A copy of the contract requested through open records has not been obtained. A UT spokesman said the general parameters of the contract described was correct, though.

“The logistics of delivering testing for athletes is really tough,” Brady said. “I would argue it’s probably the toughest and most scrutinized. From the time you’ve got take and return a sample, it’s really tight.”

Texas can spend a half-million dollars on COVID testing and still be OK financially. But the unexpected expense is one of the many reasons why athletic directors in smaller conferences are throwing in the towel on football in 2020.

On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS-level conference to cancel football. The Big Ten also applied brake pressure when it announced teams would not advance into full-pad workouts next week as scheduled.

“We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

Dark clouds are definitely forming. Sports Illustrated posted a story Saturday calling the MAC and Big Ten decisions the possible beginning of the end of the season. “I think by the end of the week the fall sports will be postponed in all conferences,” an industry source told SI.

Texas had its second fall practice Saturday in shorts and full face shields. Coaches are wearing masks or face shields or a combo of both.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, center, kneels while he and teammates listen to the coaches during the first day of practice for the 2020 season on Friday. (Texas Athletics photo)

Are athletes OK with this?

Asked how players truly feel about playing in a pandemic, Texas coach Tom Herman said on Friday, “I think they feel as good as it can. I think that’s all they expected.

“I think they knew that if there was going to be a season, there were going to be some risks that didn’t exist in previous years,” he continued. The coach acknowledged he was not speaking directly for the players. Herman said his comments were based off conversations with players.

Running back Daniel Young is currently the only Longhorn sitting out because of COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

“I think they just wanted assurances that we’re going to do our best and have the best in the country as far as strategies and protocols and all of that,” Herman said. “I think they feel comfortable that we’re providing that to them.

“Do they really feel good? I don’t know. I don’t know,” he added. “But I know they feel good about where we’re at and what the University of Texas is providing them in this time in order to attempt to play.”

Texas linemen prepare to face off against each other on the first day of practice for the 2020 season on Friday. (Texas Athletics photo)

The university released a document Friday detailing the safety measures in place for Longhorns athletes. Protocols call for “mandatory daily symptom screening,” temperature checks and immediate isolation for anyone who tests positive or exhibits symptoms.

“The athletic scholarship will remain in place for any student-athlete who elects to opt out of participation for COVID-19 health and safety concerns,” the document stated. “Texas Athletics has not and will not use COVID-19 liability waivers.”

The document also stated UT athletes will be tested twice a week. That’s where Campus Health Project comes in.

Brady, who studied biochemical engineering at UT in the 1990s, was already familiar with higher education. He founded Apogee, a two-decade-old company focused on managed technology specifically for college campuses.

Brady said he and some partners recognized in February the need for COVID testing would overwhelm the lab system managed by industry heavyweights Quest and LabCorp.

So, Brady went about securing four undisclosed labs — one in California, two in Texas and another in Florida — that could handle additional work.

“It’s not competing with the other COVID activities that they have; this is additive to that,” Brady said.

There are no 100% accurate tests for COVID-19, health officials have said, even the basic nasal swab method. The nasopharyngeal method, where a clinician sticks a cotton swab up a person’s nasal cavity to collect a sample, is the most accurate, Brady said. He called it “the gold standard.”

The NCAA said Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing is preferred, “but alternative strategies will be considered as testing technology evolves.” Saliva tests, where a person can spit into a cup, are being developed but are not considered totally accurate at the moment.

In truth, no one can know with total conviction whether an athlete will be COVID-free during competition this fall and beyond. But the nasal swab and nasopharyngeal tests are currently the best available, Brady and school officials said.

Texas linemen go through drills on the first day of fall practice on Friday. (Texas Athletics photo)

Outsourcing the tests

So why would UT athletics outsource this testing when the University of Texas has its own labs for students? Athletic director Chris Del Conte called it “a timing issue.”

UT Health Austin, the clinical arm of Dell Medical School, was one of the first in the state to offer symptomatic testing to the public in the spring. The university began offering limited asymptomatic screenings on June 4. Now, the UT lab is up to capacity with a goal of 5,000 tests per week.

Interim UT President Jay Hartzell informed the campus this week that any student can schedule a COVID-19 test with University Health Services.

Texas began allowing players back into the facilities for voluntary workouts on June 15. Team doctor Allen Hardin needed testing capability with quick turnaround time almost immediately. Two Longhorns tested positive on the initial round of testing and a third was put into self-isolation. UT would later announce that 13 total players either tested positive or were presumed positive.

“I remember Allen coming to me and saying, ‘I can’t wait around,’” Del Conte said. The department had a test run with Campus Health Project and then signed the agreement, Brady said.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte  [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]
Other schools are trying to figure this out, too. A Texas A&M spokesman said the school is accessing A&M resources to handle its turnaround tests. A Baylor spokesman said, “We have multiple sources to achieve this requirement and feel confident that we can meet this well under the three-day time-frame.”

This season, if there is one, ultimately comes down to individual behavior.

Herman said coaches are sending players any news articles or links about other teams’ missteps. For example, Louisville booted three members of its men’s soccer team for organizing a party that led to the shutdown of athletics over COVID fears.

UT announced this week it had used surveillance testing on 153 student-athletes from five different teams over the last three weeks. There were no new positive cases.

“We’ve asked for significant changes in behavior, which are a departure from what they are accustomed to, and they’ve continued to rise to the occasion,” Hardin said in a statement.

Brady said he’s seen companies also start to use third parties to obtain COVID testing for employees.

“All I can is there’s no shortage for demand for this stuff,” Brady said. “We’re trying to do our part. We’re taking some stress off the main channels of testing. Any way we can alleviate some of the stress for the lab world, it’s having a good endeavor.”

Still, even he’s stressed.

“It’s a doozy,” Brady said, “and I’m ready for it to be done.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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