Graham Mertz has tested positive for COVID-19, sources told the State Journal on Sunday.
As with all positive tests that occur using the daily rapid antigen tests, Mertz will be taking a PCR nasal swab test in order to confirm his status. The result of that test has not yet been returned to UW. It typically takes about a day to turn a PCR test around, depending on the lab reading the test.
If the PCR test confirms Mertz’s diagnosis, the No. 9 University of Wisconsin football team’s redshirt freshman quarterback will have to sit out of practice and games for at least 21 days, per the Big Ten Conference’s protocols. Mertz's test could be a false-positive, which would have to be proven by the PCR test. If Mertz is out for at least 21 days, he'll miss contests at Nebraska, against Purdue and at Michigan.
UW officials have not responded to a message asking them to confirm the news. Badgers coach Paul Chryst is slated to speak with reporters Monday.
UW released a statement Sunday night saying that no players who played in Friday's 45-7 win over Illinois recorded a positive antigen test or reported symptoms before the game. The statement also said no testing information regarding individual student-athletes will be released due to medical privacy.
Mertz tied UW records for passing touchdowns in a game (five) and consecutive completions (17) in a game, and he set a program record for completion percentage (95.23 percent) in the Badgers’ win over the Illini to start the year.
UW wasn’t missing any major pieces of the team due to COVID-19 in the opener, but losing Mertz would be a significant blow after his stellar first start.
Big Ten protocols say Mertz will undergo comprehensive cardiac testing if he’s held out from practices and games. The potential for myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, was among the concerns for Big Ten presidents and chancellors when they postponed the fall season in August. Student-athletes who test positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for 10 days, per Big Ten protocols.
Redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf is Mertz’s backup, and would likely take over the starting role if Mertz is out. Mertz became the starter after senior Jack Coan injured his foot in training camp, an injury that required surgery. Coan is out indefinitely. Wolf played the final offensive drive of Friday’s win. That drive started in the red zone after an interception, and the Badgers kicked a field goal to end it.
The football program’s availability report at Friday’s game listed only Coan, wide receiver Adam Krumholz, outside linebacker Spencer Lytle and offensive lineman Joe Tippmann as unavailable for unspecified reasons. Last month, Public Health Madison and Dane County said the Badgers had 42 cases of COVID-19 from June until mid-September.
UW athletics hasn’t released COVID-19 testing data since early September. That data said 83 student-athletes had tested positive.
Here's how the Big Ten's daily testing protocol works
There's a pre-dawn start
The testing staff arrives to the Badgers' training facility around 4:45 a.m. to start setting up. Starting at 6 a.m., there are scheduled times for players, coaches and staff to provide a sample for the testing process.
They can return to team rooms while awaiting results.
"That portion of the day adds just a tiny bit of time to their schedule," Moll said.
Testing is capped at 170 people
Under Big Ten regulations, the football team each week identifies 170 people who will be tested and can be in close contact as part of practices and games. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous 90 days and have recovered aren't subject to testing, Moll said.
The group of 170 is considered to be Tier 1. A Tier 2 group includes other essential game personnel that aren't present on practice days but are required for games. The latter includes officials, team physicians and video staff, and they're tested both on game day and the previous day.
After a short wait, it's a quick test
Once the sample is collected, a reagent is added and the sample is placed on a card. After sitting for 15 minutes, it's inserted into a diagnostic machine that provides a result in about a minute.
The Big Ten on Sept. 30 announced partnerships with Biodesix and Quidel to manage daily rapid testing and with Maxim Healthcare Staffing Services to perform tests on all 14 football teams.
The Big Ten said it is using Quidel's Sofia 2 SARS Antigen FIA test system. This video from Quidel shows how it works:
Moll monitors the test results and reports them to the football staff to confirm who can be on the field for that day's practice or game.
There's more testing if the result is positive
A positive rapid test triggers Moll to put the subject into isolation as a polymerase chain reaction test, which is considered more accurate but takes longer, is conducted to confirm the result.
If the PCR test also is positive, the person is put into 10 days of isolation and monitoring before cardiac testing and follow-ups with physicians.
A minimum 21-day absence is required if a positive is confirmed
A confirmed positive test requires a minimum 21-day absence from competition under Big Ten protocols. That could take a football player out from one-third of the nine-game schedule if he tests positive during the season.
"The message that we've tried to encourage our student-athletes to understand is to take every precaution to try to avoid this right now," Moll said.
It's not to be confused with a vaccine
Even with the enhanced testing, Badgers officials are stressing to athletes that they need to avoid situations where they could be infected with the coronavirus or risk a long absence from competition.
"It's important to note, and I know our student-athletes have taken this to heart: In no way, shape or form is there a belief that testing is a vaccine," deputy athletic director Chris McIntosh told the Athletic Board.
"Testing gives us the ability to practice and to compete in an environment that greatly reduces or eliminates the transmission of the disease. But it does not prevent the disease. For that, we need our student-athletes and our staff and our coaches to make responsible decisions."
A 'drastically different' look is ahead for 2020 game days
McIntosh extended the precautionary message to the team's fan base.
"Games in and around Camp Randall this fall are going to look drastically different than what we've all become accustomed to," he said. "There won't be tailgates taking place around our stadium. There won't be Badgerville. The union won't look like Union South normally looks on a game day.
"We would encourage everybody to stay at home and watch the game on television and cheer us on. We'll come back in the fall of '21 in a big way and get back to normal. But we all need to participate in the role that we can to make sure that we have a chance to play. We feel good about our chance right now but there's not a guarantee."