Nick Saban: How he got cleared of COVID for Alabama vs Georgia


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – About a month ago, about 600 miles west of here, a Texas A&M soccer player registered positive for COVID-19 during a routine PCR test conducted by the SEC.

Convinced that she had done nothing to endanger herself, the player sought her own test at the student health center on College Station campus. The result was negative. Over the next few days, the school tested the player three more times and got all negative results.

The soccer player was cleared by the SEC office, and days later, on October 3, the conference’s COVID task force drafted a new item in their 34-page guideline on medical guidance to treat false positive tests. The new 151-word guideline, titled “Considerations for Handling Asymptomatic PCR Positive Tests,” would allow an asymptomatic individual who tested positive to return to activity if they did three consecutive tests that were at least 24 hours apart removed, tested negative. The policy was approved by the League’s Task Force and forwarded to the Conference Board.

Then, last Thursday, league presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to implement the change, completely under the radar and without fanfare or announcement.

Little did they know how momentous it would be.

Nine days later, the game’s most successful active college executive soccer coach, Nick Saban of Alabama, was released to follow the sideline in the sport’s biggest game to date when the Crimson Tide No. 2 hosts Georgia No. 3.

He has to thank the Aggies for that.

“It’s interesting to sit here and watch it unfold,” said Ross Bjork, Texas A & M’s sporting director, in an interview with SI on Saturday. “It was developed here at Texas A&M. When it benefits coach Saban or another player, that’s why it was introduced. “

Without the soccer incident, without the hasty policy change, and without a rushed test in a mobile lab on Saturday morning, Saban wouldn’t be in such a position. Instead, it would be degraded because of an initial positive test, which doctors say was likely due to either a lab error, faulty equipment, or most likely incremental traces of viral matter that were first discovered but then quarantined during subsequent testing.

“We will no doubt discuss the future situation in Saban,” said Jeff Dugas, Troy’s team doctor and orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham, chairman of the Sun Belt’s COVID-19 Advisory Board. “Is opening Pandora’s box a bit like that anyone who tests positive we will test again and test again and test again?”

Saban’s positive test, conducted Tuesday and announced Wednesday, sent waves across the college football pond, compounded by the timing – four days before one of the most anticipated games of the toughest conference in the most bizarre season, the who has seen college football for decades.

But the door for Saban’s return always remained open, rooted in these little-known, brand new politics. In appearances he made on both Wednesday and Thursday nights, he subtly hinted at a possible return.

There was other evidence that something was abnormal in this case. Saban’s test result, who strictly adheres to COVID guidelines, always wears a mask and keeps his distance, amazed people around him. His first positive test wasn’t done by the SEC’s lab, but by a lab that Alabama had signed up with for an improved test protocol that was even stricter than the league’s three-weekly model.

He was then given PCR tests on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, each of which was sent to one of the league’s own laboratories in Mobile. They all came back negative. The last one was taken to the lab for a three-and-a-half-hour drive on Saturday around 7 a.m. and processed within 90 minutes – a quick but possible time frame, doctors say. The result was returned to Alabama officials in time for them to issue a statement at 11:20 a.m.

And with that, Saban will train on Saturday night, using a guideline that was only in place last Thursday, five days before he tested positive.

Everything goes back to College Station in Texas.

Without revealing the player’s name, Björk stated that one of his soccer players tested positive on September 20th. Seven other players and employees were considered close contacts, which triggered a 14-day quarantine. The Aggies even had to postpone their next game against Auburn.

After the player registered four consecutive negative tests, Bjork and his staff brought the case to the league, whose medical task force had already considered the option, led by Florida team doctor Jay Clugston.

“At the time, there was no policy to delete them unless there was a real lab error,” says Björk. “We worked through the SEC to fix them as lab bugs, and then we recommended the task force review the guidelines and review positive tests.

“Our business has been to use common sense and make sure we are correct. If you test so much, there is bound to be wrong. If we had to be the case study to get it going, so be it, ”he says. “As soon as the news came on Friday [about Saban] that it could have been a false positive, I wrote to our medics: “Hey, politics could work!”

In an interview early Saturday morning on the SEC Network, Commissioner Greg Sankey spoke about how the league had seen a similar false positive last month.

“It happened in other sports before it actually happened in football,” said Sankey. “This happens to be one of the most iconic conferences and one of our most iconic programs at the heart of history.”

However, other questions still remain open. What exactly is a false positive? How has Saban’s first test of the PCR strain, the gold standard in the industry, been positive?

Aside from a laboratory error or faulty equipment, the most reasonable explanation is that the test was indeed accurate and that very small traces of viral substance were found in Saban’s nasal cavity, says Geoffrey Baird, the interim chairman of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington who is an expert in COVID testing.

Saban’s viral load could have been so low that subsequent tests found no traces or insufficient traces to register another positive result.

“It could be that he had a very mild case and was only detectable for a short time,” says Baird. “He could have had a brief interaction with it, but it didn’t become symptomatic or problematic.”

However, many variables play a role here. Testing is not all created equal. Laboratories process tests differently, and Saban’s initial positive was processed in a different laboratory than the other three. The methods of performing the test are also different (was his initial test method performed the same way as his other three?). Various devices are used, some of which are valued and respected more than others. In this particular case, however, the most important variable is the virus threshold: how much virus does it take to trigger a positive?

Dugas explains.

“Suppose you’re looking for virus particles and a sample contains a million,” says Dugas. “You put a drop of the sample on the swab and have the swab in the [reagent] Liquid and then it goes to the slide and into the machine.

“Maybe the machine will pick up 20,000 of the virus particles because that’s in that small part of the sample. That could trigger a positive. But what if those 20,000 were 1,000? “

Laboratories have different threshold values ​​for what is registered positively and what is not. In fact, Baird says, a person with a small amount of viral matter can register a negative result.

False positive results with PCR tests are rare without laboratory errors. Baird’s lab has run 900,000 tests, and while he doesn’t have a specific number, he has seen a false positive “only a few times”.

“It’s 1-2% at most, but it’s probably a lot less,” he says. “It’s incredibly unlikely.”

However, the numbers don’t necessarily take into account that every positive will be retested. “Very few people can afford or have to do three tests in a row,” he says.

In fact, many other college football conferences don’t include a policy like the SEC that was put in place last month – the one triggered by the A&M soccer player. Now in the spotlight, politics can be scrutinized by some and praised by others.

But everyone agrees that “the Saban situation,” as Dugas puts it, will make more waves across the college football landscape.

“It’s a strange time,” says Björk. “It’s another example of the fluidity of all of this.”

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