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'It’s been a moving target': Oklahoma State doctors reacting to changing needs of COVID-19 monitoring for athletes

OSU receiver Tylan Wallace undergoes a COVID-19 test in early June in the weight room at Boone Pickens Stadium. [Bruce Waterfield/Courtesy of OSU Athletics]
OSU receiver Tylan Wallace undergoes a COVID-19 test in early June in the weight room at Boone Pickens Stadium. [Bruce Waterfield/Courtesy of OSU Athletics]

STILLWATER — Twice a week, nearly every week for the last two months, Dr. Dennis Blankenship has driven from his office in Tulsa to the Oklahoma State athletic facility, where he and a crew of doctors and nurses perform COVID-19 tests on OSU athletes.

Some of the athletes are new to campus, like with the basketball players who arrived recently, and some are football players who arrived in June getting retested after positive results and quarantines.

College football season rides on the backs of athletes who must do what it takes to stay healthy. And it’s people like Blankenship, Dr. Val Gene Iven and several others who have the tireless task of monitoring those players’ health.

“We’ve been going down to campus one to two times a week, depending on which athletes are coming into campus and such, and doing mass oropharyngeal (throat) swabs, then bringing them back to our lab to perform the tests,” said Blankenship, who is the senior associate dean of academic affairs and a clinical professor of emergency medicine at OSU’s Center for Health Sciences.

“Credit to Dr. Johnny Stevens and Dr. Kasey Shrum, they were able to get our labs certified, get them up and running and verified doing good work. They started on that in March and had them going relatively quickly. If you look at the amount of testing across the state, OSU labs are doing a large portion of tests statewide.”

The medical professionals at OSU monitor the practices of other conferences, professional leagues, the CDC and anyone else facing the task of testing and treating COVID-19 in or out of an athletic setting.

That can lead to a constantly changing process.

“I always say, ‘I’m gonna tell you what we’re doing today, and what the CDC says and what they’re telling us we should be doing, but be very aware that things are changing so rapidly that what I tell you today may change tomorrow,” Blankenship said.

“As a physician, that’s tough, because you’re used to having pretty solid guidelines and being able to know those and recite them and practice them. But within the past three months as it relates to COVID-19, it’s been a moving target.”

Oklahoma State had 14 positive tests through the initial reporting of football players in June, then saw a spike after the July 4 holiday weekend, Iven says.

“We had anticipated a lot of things, as a lot of us had in college athletics, and we had put those into our plan as to how to be prepared as best we could,” Iven said. “We had to develop a situation knowing we’re in the collegiate environment and we can’t duplicate an Orlando bubble, like the NBA.”

“June was different than July, and August will be different than July. We had more cases in July than we did in June, and I attribute that to the Fourth of July weekend. This is such a contagious virus that when you’re dealing with 100-125 student-athletes, it takes one or two to go out and be around somebody that they’ve not been around for the previous month, then to come back and expose other teammates.

“You can think that you do everything very, very well, and still become infected.”

More challenges are coming, for instance when the team begins full-contact drills, or next month when the rest of the OSU student population returns to campus.

“When somebody tests positive, you’re continually going backwards and tracking previous exposures, and that’s what makes this so challenging,” Iven said. “Moving forward, that part won’t get any easier because your potential exposures on campus will be more.

“Everything we do is built around the health and safety of our students. Our student-athletes want to play. They’ve trained hard and this is what they love and this is what we’re trying to accomplish. So that’s our focus, trying to match that concept with how we can do that in as safe a manner. But that has to match with the understanding that as more people arrive on campus, the density of your population increases. With that, there are more exposures.”

Assuming the football season goes on as scheduled, testing will ramp up for the members of OSU’s medical task force. The NCAA has published recommendations — and the Power 5 conferences are expected to adopt a similar plan — requiring all players to be tested within 72 hours of a game.

Blankenship feels fortunate to have facilities that can handle far more than a football team’s worth of tests.

“On our campus, we have a lab, and we were able to acquire a machine that is capable of doing around 300 tests per day. That’s been a big deal for us,” he said. “We also partner with the lab there in Stillwater on the veterinary med campus. They’re able to do almost 10 times the amount of tests we’re able to do on our campus.”

Scott Wright

A lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, Scott Wright has been on The Oklahoman staff since 2005, covering a little bit of everything on the state's sports scene. He has been a beat writer for football and basketball at Oklahoma and... Read more ›