Eight UNM Lobo football players and one assistant coach on Wednesday tested positive for COVID-19, leading to athletic director Eddie Nuñez to “pause” practice and team activities on Thursday.
Nuñez said the decision was “out of an abundance of caution,” and Friday’s practice is also cancelled, but he was hopeful the team would be able to return to practice on Saturday and still be able to play in next week’s Oct. 24 season opening game at Colorado State.
By Thursday evening — after another grim day of news about record setting case numbers and hospitalizations in New Mexico — the Journal confirmed that state officials had stepped in and brought a shutdown to all team activities — not due to the team’s positive tests, per se, but rather based on the rise in case numbers overall in Bernalillo County.
“As Bernalillo County’s positivity rate no longer meets the criteria of the COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports agreed to by the university, the school has been instructed to postpone team activities at this time,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Two weeks ago, Lobo football was allowed to resume full-contact practice despite the state’s public health order otherwise prohibiting it, due to agreeing with state health officials on a four-page document of testing and other safety guidelines.
The last paragraph of page two of that “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” document states: “For any practice, game or scrimmage to occur in New Mexico, the college, university or New Mexico special school must be located in a county with a 14-day average daily case count of fewer than eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of under 5 percent.”
On Thursday, as the state announced 672 new cases, which is 100 more than the record high set just one day prior, Bernalillo County’s 14-day average rose to 14.1 cases per 100,000. And while the positivity rate was at 4.7%, the criteria for the 14-day average — one that mathematically seems likely to take at least several days to bring back down based on the past week’s continuous rising numbers — means Lobo football cannot continue practicing.
“We were just told the same,” Nuñez said Thursday evening. “We will work with the Governor’s Office and all state officials in the coming days to do whatever we can to try and continue in a safe manner for all.”
Nuñez would not say if he thinks the forced shutdown will now put the season opener in jeopardy, but if the team doesn’t practice for the next week, they cannot safely play in the Oct. 24 game.
UNM would not identify the players or staff member who tested positive. The players and assistant coach are being quarantined and are not around the team, Nuñez said. Three of the players were already being quarantined for precautionary reasons after inconclusive tests on Sunday raised concerns.
The testing, paid for by the Mountain West for all 12 football playing members of the league includes more than 150 PCR (nasal swab) tests three times a week for every school. The team’s next scheduled PCR test is Friday.
Wednesday marked the first positive test for any Lobo football player since Aug. 28. The team had been testing weekly until this week, when three times per week PCR testing began through Mountain West protocols and state requirements of the team. Out of 2,078 tests since June, UNM has had 27 positives total, including the nine they learned about Wednesday night.
In her Thursday COVID-19 update, Lujan Grisham hinted at the UNM news, saying: “I think that UNM is prepared to publicly announce that they’re seeing trouble with their athletes and coaches.”
Thursday afternoon, Nuñez said he copes contact tracing efforts will help identify where the positive tests came from, but noted that initial testing results make the program feel optimistic that there isn’t a widespread among the team at this point.