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UNM, NMSU athletes returning to COVID-19 testing

As universities around the nation have been re-opening athletics facilities since June 1 to voluntary practices after months of pandemic-related restrictions kept athletes and staff off campus, there have been mixed results in terms of positive COVID-19 tests.

UNM, one of the last major universities to bring its athletes back for summer workouts, has watched carefully and starts welcoming back football players this week with the hopes of voluntary workouts – after testing, physicals and a 14-day quarantine period – resuming in early July.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico State University on May 27 had 132 athletes tested and six positive or presumed positive COVID-19 results, athletic director Mario Moccia told the Journal over the weekend. All six of those athletes are now testing negative, and no other positive tests have arisen.

But the Aggies’ successful adherence thus far to their return to campus plan isn’t exactly the norm.

Several universities have shut down voluntary workouts as positive tests spike. In some cases with football teams reporting more than 20 positive tests, some are rumored to have been traced to players doing what college kids often do: go to parties or bars where large numbers of people gather.

“Hopefully we can talk with our student athletes and really get them to understand the importance of the parts of this that are out of our control,” UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said. He hopes Lobo athletes will take it on themselves to avoid the high-risk settings of large gatherings when they aren’t at practice.

“We will have the testing and take all the appropriate precautions to make this as safe an environment as we can for our student athletes and staff,” he said, “but the really concerning part is for the student athletes and their understanding what their role in all this is outside of the facilities and their taking the opportunity to see what has happened at some other places.”

Other UNM fall sports, and some members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, will begin their official return to campus over the next month, all with the same initial protocols in place – with their health of primary concern, but not the only concern.

While college-aged athletes are among the lowest risk demographic of becoming severely sick or die from COVID-19, they aren’t immune. Not only can they still carry the virus and suffer its effects, they can transmit it to whomever they come in contact with, including teammates, older coaches and anyone else who might be around a college athletics team, including possibly fans.

There is not a question of whether college athletes will test positive. Rather, universities are now under the microscope for how prepared they are to handle such tests and at what rate those tests come back.

By June 12, the University of Houston was the first program that had started voluntary workouts to reverse course and shut them down due to positive tests.

More recently, power conference football programs like Clemson, LSU and Texas have all reported 20 or more possible positive tests, bringing a new wave of doubt indeed about whether the season will be played.

In the Mountain West, Boise State this past weekend announced it was shutting down parts of campus and athletics facilities – including voluntary football practices – after eight new positive or presumed positive tests of people on campus.

But there are others, like NMSU, where testing, stringent cleaning and social distancing precautions have apparently been met with much more success.

Moccia said the university has made no alterations to its return plan implemented earlier this month after input from numerous sources, including an on-campus epidemiologist.

DISCLOSURE: While some universities are not disclosing the number of positive tests, UNM and NMSU have made clear they will work in every way to adhere to the guidelines set forth by the state on all COVID-19 matters.

“The Department of Health encourages both testing and disclosure of case numbers related to COVID-19,” David Morgan of the DOH told the Journal in an email last week. “While we provide our data publicly and update it daily, New Mexico colleges, and their athletic programs, are free to do likewise at their own discretion.”

NMSU, after an initial round of testing, did confirm six positive tests, which included a testing pool of 75 football, 10 men’s basketball, three women’s soccer, two baseball and one women’s basketball players. Names or specific sports of the positive tests have not been identified.

Nuñez has said UNM will be as transparent as possible with the release of positive test results without specifically identifying any athlete or staff member.

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