A smattering of positive coronavirus tests has followed the return of college football teams to campuses for voluntary workouts this month.
The announcements by universities and their athletic departments have revealed a number of unidentified players, coaches or staff members who tested positive for COVID-19.
They have come from a mix of schools — college football bluebloods and smaller programs, a list that includes Texas, Iowa, Marshall and Florida State.
But no similar disclosure has been made — nor is expected to be made — at Ohio State, which on Monday allowed football players to resume workouts at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center after a months-long shutdown.
Citing privacy concerns, the school declined to release testing data, including any potential positive tests.
A spokesman wrote in an email, "The university is not sharing cumulative information publicly as it could lead to the identification of specific individuals."
According to its outlined health and safety protocols, Ohio State football players submitted to testing last week. Before they were permitted to use on-campus athletic facilities, they were required to test negative, and players testing positive for COVID-19 were to self-isolate for at least 14 days.
OSU’s decision not to publicly disclose testing data differs from recommendations made by several infectious disease experts who spoke with The Dispatch. They believe the school’s revealing of information could heighten awareness of a coronavirus pandemic that has seen cases spike in multiple states since Memorial Day weekend.
"From a functional perspective of trying to curtail an epidemic, it’s helpful for the public to know that this is going on even among the members of their beloved football team," said Dr. Michael Saag, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. "I think there’s some utilitarian benefit from a public-health standpoint."
Saag considers sports figures to be among the most high-profile people within their cities and surrounding communities. Thus, a positive test represents the potential for an attention-grabbing moment.
"It starts to make it a little more real," he said.
College football programs across the country long have been reticent about disclosing medical information about their players. Last season, Ohio State stopped providing official details surrounding players’ injuries, releasing only a weekly status report that specified if someone might be available or unavailable on game day.
But in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, players are not just sidelined with knee or shoulder injuries. They have the potential to carry a contagious disease across their campuses, which present a unique dynamic.
Professional leagues can be staged at isolated neutral sites, limiting the possible exposure. The NBA and MLS are looking to restart their seasons next month at a massive complex at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida.
College athletes, though, will remain near their schools, where they attend class, meet with tutors and participate in other social activities. Ohio State plans to hold in-person classes for its fall semester, beginning in late August.
"Everybody is going to be connected together as part of a larger part of the campus and community," said Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious diseases researcher at Case Western Reserve University.
The Ohio Department of Health first designated COVID-19 as a reportable infectious disease in January, meaning confirmed cases must be reported to local health officials, a step intended to curb its spread.
But the classification does not mean Ohio State must release the testing data of its football players who participate in a contact sport considered to be one of the more high-risk on-campus activities for the spread of the virus.
If the school elected to disclose data, Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, noted it could influence whether students, faculty and other people who live around campus might visit.
"It’s important for other students who may be going back to Ohio State in August to know how widespread the virus is on campus," Binney said. "I’m not asking to know that this particular defensive end tested positive; that’s unnecessary and an invasion of privacy.
"But if you do 200 tests, it’s really valuable for a lot of people to know if it’s one of those 200 that tested positive or 20. That makes an enormous difference to you as a student or a parent of a student who may go visit the campus."
Beyond the initial round of testing, Binney said it was as important for schools to provide continual updates to the public concerning testing results.
If players test positive when they first returned to campus, they likely picked up COVID-19 elsewhere, either from their homes in other cities or during their travel.
Any positive tests in the coming weeks, after they had been situated on campus, could carry larger implications, meaning the virus had spread on campus or during organized activities such as a weightlifting workout.
"This is a totally optional thing," Binney said. "Bringing back college athletics is a completely optional thing. These student-athletes do not need to be back on campus right now. So with any optional activity, you need to understand the risk and the benefit. And the benefits need to outweigh the risks.
"We can argue about the relative benefits of college athletics until we’re blue in the face, but the only way to really understand the risk is to be monitoring everyone and knowing how many people may be getting sick as the result of coming back."