Saratoga County will be the “guinea pig” county to see if extensive random testing can prevent the spread of COVID-19 among student athletes, even if the viral illness is spreading in the wider community, an official said.
County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Daniel Kuhles on Thursday outlined a plan to randomly test athletes from the county’s 12 school districts and quarantine suspected positive cases, but only if the county’s test positivity rate goes back to 4.1 percent or higher.
If the county does have to do it, using the model the NCAA has developed for testing college athletes, it will be the most extensive sports testing program of any county in the state, Kuhles acknowledged during a presentation to the county Board of Supervisors.
“I’m not aware that any other county has adopted the NCAA type of program at the county level,” Kuhles said in response to a question. “Yes, I would describe Saratoga County as a guinea pig, if you will.”
The testing protocols call for random testing of athletes on all teams twice a week, with more extensive testing if a case is detected.
The protocols are a followup to the county’s decision last Friday to allow resumption of high-risk sports, after the state said high-risk sports could resume as of Feb. 1, if COVID-19 rates remained low enough.
The goal of the guidance and requirements is to enable student athletes to continue to train and compete even if the COVID-19 positivity rate fluctuates.
“We recognize the important role that sports play in the lives of many of our students, and we’ve been moving quickly to research and prepare a plan that would allow our athletes to return to competition,” said county board Chairman Todd Kusnierz, R-Moreau. “Thanks to Dr. Kuhles, the devised plan will balance the physical and psychological health benefits that sports have for our youth while maintaining the health and safety of the community and our healthcare workers.”
In addition to agreeing to random testing, athletes and their families will be required to fully cooperate if a positive requires a contact tracing investigation. The program will also require that teams shut down all activities immediately if there is a positive test for even one athlete.
“The athletes and their families have made clear they will do whatever they have to to return,” said Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett. “The superintendents I have spoken to are very positive both about the return of athletics and this testing program.”
Other supervisors said they are also pleased with the plan laid out by Kuhles, an epidemiologist who previously worked for the state Health Department.
“It is an issue throughout the county and throughout the state, the clamoring of the student athletes to get that experience, and we want them to do it safely,” said Northumberland Supervisor Bill Peck.
The testing protocols may not be needed at all, since they don’t kick in unless the county’s positivity rate is 4.1 percent or higher. The county’s rate is below that, and has been dramatically improving. As of Thursday, Saratoga County’s seven-day rolling average had fallen to 3.5 percent, down from 4.0 percent just the day before.
The “high-risk” sports include close-contact sports like basketball, cheer-leading, wrestling and ice hockey. Kuhles said there are about 1,100 winter student athletes in the county who would be participating.
Kuhles said cost shouldn’t be a factor. The antigen tests are inexpensive and provide a result within 15 minutes, while any initial positive cases would be confirmed using a more sophisticated RNA test — and the county last year purchased a machine that processes RNA tests.
Because the federal government has purchased 150 million test kits and distributed them to states at no cost (and the state then provided them to counties) any testing is expected to have no cost to the participating school districts. There would only be a cost to the county if an outbreak led to a need for so much testing that the allotment was used up.
“We have set aside some money, but we don’t think it will be that much,” County Administrator Steven Bulger said.
The Daily Gazette monitored the meeting held in Ballston Spa by telephone because of pandemic restrictions on in-person gatherings.
In the greater Capital Region, many but not all counties are going forward with student athletics based on the state guidance.
Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Rensselaer, Warren and Washington counties have adopted guidelines that don’t allow full-contact practice or games until the county’s seven-day rolling average is at or below 4.0 percent. At this point, Saratoga, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Warren and Schoharie all have rates below 4.0 percent.
Montgomery County’s plan allows for full-contact play and contests among teams within the county with no restriction, but that county’s teams cannot play outside the county until Montgomery is at or below 4 percent. Montgomery County’s current rate is 7.0.
Fulton County has said athletics can resume if the county rate comes down to 4.0, but its current seven-day average is 7.8 percent.