A COVID-19 outbreak has put the University of Wisconsin football season on hold after just one game.
The Badgers will pause football activities for at least seven days after a dozen people in the program, including coach Paul Chryst and starting quarterback Graham Mertz, tested positive for COVID-19 in the past five days.
The Badgers, ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, decided they cannot play their scheduled game Saturday at Nebraska. A Big Ten Conference spokesman said the game will not count toward either team’s record.
The 12 people who tested positive include six players and six staff members. The program was in the process of providing hotel rooms for seven days in order to separate players who live together to combat the virus’ spread. UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said the program does not know what caused the outbreak.
Additional test results are pending, meaning there are potentially more cases within the program.
Sources told the Wisconsin State Journal that offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is among the six staff members who tested positive.
Chryst said he took an antigen test Tuesday morning and tested negative but tested positive on the PCR test the entire team took Tuesday afternoon. He said he was disappointed that his program was in this situation.
“I don’t profess to be an expert on this, but this is one part of this virus: It gets you a number of different ways,” Chryst said. “We don’t know, did we have one superspreader? I don’t know that.”
Watch as UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and head football coach Paul Chryst speak to the media about the program's COVID-19 coronavirus cases and the cancellation of the Badgers' upcoming game against the Cornhuskers in a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Big Ten protocols state Chryst and any other infected UW coaches must isolate for 10 days before returning to in-person coaching. Players who test positive must sit out of game action for 21 days.
Chryst is the second Big Ten head coach to have contracted the virus this season. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm missed his team’s opener against Iowa as part of his 10-day isolation.
UW, coming off a 45-7 win over Illinois in its season opener, is the first Big Ten team to have to call off a game due to COVID-19 complications. Illinois coach Lovie Smith told reporters his team had not had any new positive tests since playing the Badgers.
A release sent by the university said pausing team activities was a joint decision by Alvarez and UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank, in consultation with the Big Ten.
Big Ten protocols state a team cannot practice or play for at least seven days if its seven-day rolling average of virus positivity rate surpasses 5% among the team and 7.5% among the team population.
Positivity rate is calculated by dividing the number of positive tests by the total number of tests administered.
Alvarez said the program is at an orange/red level, per Big Ten protocols, meaning a player positivity rate between 2% and 5% and a population positivity rate above 7.5%.
“Our first month of testing and practice, we had one positive (Sept. 30). We had one positive test, I believe it was Wednesday prior to the game. Since the game, we’ve had 12 positive tests,” Alvarez said. “We just felt with the number of positives in that short of a timeline, the chancellor and I felt we have an issue, we have to make this decision and get our arms around this and control the COVID and the virus now before it got out of hand.”
Alvarez said he spoke with Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos early Wednesday morning to inform him of UW’s decision. Alvarez was tested twice last week before the game, and took another COVID-19 test on Wednesday.
The seven-day pause puts the home game against Purdue on Nov. 7 in jeopardy of being canceled as well.
Chryst said he wasn’t sure of when the clock started on the team’s activities shutdown. But the Badgers practiced on Tuesday, so the earliest they could be back on the practice field would be next Wednesday. That would give the team three days of in-person activities to prepare for the Purdue game.
Chryst also couldn’t confirm when he and other infected coaches’ 10 days away from the team began. If Wednesday was the first day of their isolation, they could be with the team in person again Nov. 7, the day the Purdue game is scheduled to be played.
Alvarez said a decision on the Purdue game would be made after seeing where the team’s testing numbers stand.
“We’ll make that decision as we move closer to the game. The most important thing right now is to quarantine our players and get this under control. We’ll make that decision about playing the next game when that time comes,” Alvarez said.
UW and Nebraska missing a game could alter postseason situations for the entire Big Ten West Division.
According to a Big Ten policy put in place this season, “a team must play at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game. However, if the average number of conference games played by all teams falls below six, then teams must play no less than the average number of conference games played by all teams to be considered.”
State Journal sources said starting quarterback Graham Mertz tested positive for COVID-19 after the Illinois game, as did fellow quarterback Chase Wolf. Those sources also indicated several other people tested positive this weekend, but all of their identities could not be verified.
UW’s football program hadn’t released data from its COVID-19 testing before Wednesday’s announcement. Public Health Madison and Dane County told the State Journal on Tuesday that 60 COVID-19 cases are identified as being associated with UW football between early June and Monday.
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