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'It's working': OU chief COVID officer praises football program's safety protocols, testing numbers after two weeks

Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU's chief COVID officer, says the school's football program has been “taking personal responsibility outside of practice.” [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU's chief COVID officer, says the school's football program has been “taking personal responsibility outside of practice.” [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

Dr. Dale Bratzler is often swamped with disheartening news.

As OU's chief COVID officer, Bratzler is tasked with planning how to ensure safety for thousands of students returning to campus next month as cases continue to surge across the state and country. Oklahoma recorded over 1,000 positive tests for the first time on Tuesday, the same day Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he tested positive.

However, Bratzler has seen a positive trend relating to the virus in OU’s football team. The Sooners returned to campus for voluntary workouts on July 1, later than many of their peers, and reported 14 total positive tests and two recoveries. Bratzler said seven of the tests were from “local” players, while the other seven were from players who had been out of the state.

One week later, OU reported zero new positive tests and three additional recoveries. OU’s numbers are more favorable than other programs around the country — Clemson has had over 30 cases, while Kansas State and Ohio State had to suspend workouts amid an outbreak in cases.

When Bratzler was first appointed to his role by OU President Joe Harroz, he was impressed with the athletic department’s plan to return players to campus.

“They basically said, ‘These are the things that work that are known to stop the spread of the disease’ and they’ve implemented them,” Bratzler said. “They physically distance the players and they have them all in masks. And it's working. They’re wearing masks all the time during indoor and outdoor training and they’ve really taken it to heart.”

Mask wearing has been a controversial topic during the pandemic, particularly in Oklahoma. OU football coach Lincoln Riley has been a supporter of mask wearing and retweeted a tweet on July 3 that encouraged others to “wear the damn mask.”

The Norman City Council passed an ordinance on July 8 requiring people to wear facial coverings in public. However, Gov. Stitt said he is not endorsing a state-wide mask mandate, saying, “You can’t pick and choose what freedoms you’re going to give people.”

Bratzler said not wearing a mask will lead to the spread of the virus, and the Sooners’ use of masks has contributed to their low number of cases.

“I can summarize the spread of the disease in Oklahoma like this: If you have people gathering when they’re not wearing masks, it will spread,” Bratzler said. “It’s just going to happen.”

However, Riley’s program hasn’t managed the spread of the virus on masks alone, as other schools have seen outbreaks due to players leaving campus. LSU reportedly had to quarantine 30 players in June after multiple players went to nightclubs around Baton Rouge.

According to Bratzler, OU hasn't run into similar trouble in their two weeks back on campus. He said Riley and his staff have been proactive about educating players on the consequences of the spread and encouraged them to hold each other accountable.

“They are taking personal responsibility outside of practice,” Bratzler said. “They’ve done a lot of training telling guys things like, ‘If your roommate goes out and gets infected, then you can’t practice for two weeks.’ So the student-athletes are educated on personal responsibility in the transmission of the virus.”

With the program seemingly having a firm grasp on keeping players safe in July, the next challenge is keeping them safe when thousands of non-athletes return to campus in August.

Bratzler is taking some protocols that the football team implemented and applying them to the rest of the student body next month. He said it is likely that students who live on campus will be required to show proof they had tested negative prior to move in. However, while Riley can generally control what players are doing and ensure they are staying on campus, Bratzler can’t necessarily do the same for OU’s student population.

“It’s given me some hope that we can reduce the spread,” Bratzler said. “I’m very comfortable that the campus and classrooms will be safe. We can physically distance students, require masks and disinfect spaces and the airflow system. But I just can’t control what students do when they’re out of class when they go home.”

Vic Reynolds

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