Athletics returns with high vaccination rates, new COVID-19 protocol

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor

As vaccination rates increase on campus this semester, they’re rising even higher within the VCU Athletic department. 

The department’s vaccination rate is higher than the university-wide statistic with 100% of tier-one staff and 96% of student-athletes being vaccinated, VCU Athletics spokesperson Chris Kowalczyk confirmed on Tuesday. 

The university-wide confirmed vaccination rate of students is 92.8% and 87.3% of staff, according to VCU’s vaccination dashboard as of Friday. 

“I think with our increased vaccination rate, that should provide a lot of protection for our student-athletes,” said Jeff Collins, VCU’s assistant athletic director for sports medicine. “I think that gives us a better chance of saying we’re going to be able to reduce the number of positive cases and therefore not have to be quite as concerned about canceling activities due to COVID.”

A new protocol installed within VCU Athletics allows for teams to continue practicing and playing games should a positive test appear. That athlete would be isolated from the rest of the team and the others wouldn’t have to be tested if they’re vaccinated. 

“Having a student athlete test positive would not necessarily preclude the whole team from participating in an activity or shutting down the team for a period; it would just depend on if that student athlete was positive, who they’ve been in contact with,” Collins said.

If a student-athlete tests positive, they will be isolated for 10 days, according to Collins. He added that when the athlete exits isolation, they will be evaluated by the team physician before a “gradual return to activity.” 

The return to competition will take at least seven days in a ramp up period to get the athlete back to full team activity. 

Weekly testing will only be mandatory for unvaccinated athletes, regardless if their season is in session or not. If the unvaccinated athlete is in season, the test has to occur within 72 hours of traveling to their first contest of the week.

Even though COVID-19 protocols have loosened testing requirements for vaccinated athletes, field hockey coach Stacey Bean said her team still has to be vigilant and aware of the risks of contracting the virus. 

“It’s a reality in the world right now,” Bean said. “So, we just really have to stay mature in our approach to that.”

There are minimal restrictions for competitions on campus, with masks being the only requirement for fans in attendance.

The department is also following all state and local guidelines for COVID-19, and it’s possible policies could adjust if Richmond or the state changes its recommendations.

“Safety measures are being held at the highest level again, fans even have to wear masks,” said volleyball head coach Jody Rogers. “It’s a little better than what it used to be, but we have to be safe still.”

Virginia doesn’t currently have a mask mandate surrounding indoor or outdoor events, but the Department of Health “strongly encourages” people to wash hands regularly, social distance if not vaccinated and to get tested for COVID-19 if someone is experiencing virus symptoms.

VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin wrote in an April 19 letter to fans that the Stuart C. Siegel Center was going to return to full capacity for this upcoming fall season.

“We have proven throughout the last six months that we can host home games in a safe manner with complete risk mitigation,” McLaughlin stated. “We will continue to provide the safest facilities and experiences for our student-athletes, staff and fans.”

Last year, VCU Athletics had a cluster of more than 40 positive tests of athletes that weren’t in season, which forced the university to designate three floors of the Honors College building for additional isolation space. 

The men’s basketball team had multiple positive tests at the March NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, forcing the team to return home, deeming their first-round game against Oregon as a no-contest. 

This year, VCU Athletics had its first events affected by the virus before classes could begin for the fall semester. The department has “indefinitely postponed” its Student-Athlete Donor Dinner and the inaugural Ram Fest “out of an abundance of caution” due to the delta variant, according to an announcement released on Aug. 20. 

Ram Fest was set to take place on Aug. 26 in the parking lot at The Diamond, with games and programming for all ages. The event was going to have carnival-style games, a beer garden and a celebrity dunk tank, which was slated to host men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades and women’s basketball coach Beth O’Boyle, among others. 

The two events were going to feature close interaction between student-athletes and the public. 

“VCU Athletics made the decision based solely upon the mitigation of potential risks to student-athletes and staff,” according to the department’s announcement.

Last season, volleyball competed while wearing masks in all competitions. Rogers said her team doesn’t have to wear masks while playing this season, but when the team’s not actively playing, masks are worn.

“It’s still out there, there’s different things going on, we have to make it a top priority because if we do get shut down, it’s very unfortunate mentally,” Rogers said. “We want to keep our bubble as contained as we can, so we’re gonna try to wear our masks as much as possible.”

Katilyn Fulmore contributed to this report.

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