After 2021 club and college seasons largely free of major COVID-related disruptions, the tournament took place just as the omicron variant sent nationwide case numbers to record highs.
January 4, 2022 by Mags Colvett in News with 0 comments
After a four-day, 72-team 2021 College Championships that saw several players and teams withdraw in accordance with COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, many more teams have reported positive test results from the week following the tournament. Of 52 D-I and D-III teams who responded to Ultiworld by press time, 28 have reported at least one positive test between December 17 (the first day of the tournament) and December 27 (one week after the tournament ended); 17 of those teams reported positive tests for at least 3 rostered players who attended Nationals, and 8 teams reported that 7 or more players tested positive.
These reports come during a record COVID-19 surge connected to the highly transmissible omicron variant. It is the first time Ultiworld has learned of a significant number of cases reported by players who attended a major tournament in the US since national competition resumed in summer 2021.
Though the one-time-only December championships in Norco, CA, were conceived as a celebration of college ultimate’s return to play as well as a last hurrah for graduating players who missed seasons in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic loomed large over the event from the first round of games. Minutes into play on Friday, Carleton CUT forfeited a pool play match and ultimately withdrew from the tournament after a player who had traveled and practiced with the team reported a positive test; by Sunday, both Brandeis teams and the UC San Diego men’s team would also withdraw, while other teams lost multiple players before or during the tournament. In the week after games concluded, both D-I women’s finalists North Carolina Pleiades and Washington Element took to Twitter to announce additional positive tests within their teams.
We are coming to Twitter just as a quick form of communication to inform teams that despite our whole team being fully vaccinated, including the booster, and all testing negative before nationals, we have had positive tests this week following nationals. (1/3)
— UNC Women's Ultimate (@UNC_Pleiades) December 24, 2021
For transparency and communication, we wanted to let teams know, as well as @USAUltimate, that despite our all-team negative tests prior to Nationals and not experiencing any symptoms during the tournament, Element has had positive tests this week after leaving nationals. (1/2)
— UW Element (@UWElement) December 24, 2021
They weren’t alone: despite near-universal vaccination across teams who responded to Ultiworld as well as many additional precautions taken by teams with some of the highest positivity rates, there were numerous sporadic cases and even significant breakouts. One team who brought over 25 rostered players to Norco reported as many as 21 positives, all detected in the week after the tournament; another team with fewer than 15 players reported 13 positives, as well as at least 6 positives among other people who were with the team on site (such as coaches, chaperones, parents, or fans).
The data was collected via a survey sent to all D-I and D-III teams who attended Nationals (excluding Carleton CUT, who withdrew early on the first day and were not present for most of the event).1
It should be emphasized that this data only measures how many positive test results were reported within a team during or shortly after the tournament and may not reflect how or where any players contracted COVID-19, any false negatives or positives, or variations in testing plans and record-keeping from team to team; it is also not an indication of how many players were or may have been contagious at Nationals. Nevertheless, the extent of COVID-19 spread among college players during this time is striking, especially considering the cross-country flights, shared sleeping and eating accommodations, and other attendant risks that come with a large travel tournament.
The experience has been rattling for many teams who believed they were doing enough to prevent transmission. Of the 28 teams who reported at least one positive, 24 told Ultiworld that vaccines were required by their school or team or that the team was entirely vaccinated by choice; all teams with 7 or more positives reported being fully vaccinated across the team. 15 of the 28 teams with positives also told Ultiworld that they required or strongly encouraged testing before the tournament.
“We all were double vaccinated, and many of us were boosted as well,” said one contact for a team with over 10 positive cases. “We all took covid tests right before traveling (all negative). We were all very careful during travel and during the tournament, and formed a bubble with just our team and masked around everyone else. We only got takeout food, and tried to keep our distance from as many people as we could. Nobody had any symptoms until after the tournament ended and we got back home.”
A contact for another team with over 7 cases reported, “We have required our team to do weekly covid tests since we were permitted to practice in fall 2020 (at the time, in masked pods). I can only remember one person off the top of my head on our team who had gotten covid in the past two years, but there may be one or two other people I’m forgetting. Ultimately, we have not had any spreading or exposures occur in a team setting. This is our team’s first outbreak — no issues with Sectionals and Regionals.”
Ultiworld’s own College Championships reporting and video production team experienced a significant COVID-19 outbreak following the tournament, with 13 of 25 staffers reporting positive test results; this was despite also taking precautions above and beyond the requirements for USAU media partners,2 mandating proof of vaccination and proof of a negative test result within 48 hours before traveling. The outbreak came as a surprise after having no such incidents at the USAU Club Championships as late as October 2021, when breakthrough infections due to earlier COVID-19 variants like the delta variant were already a known risk.
Interestingly, the 24 teams who reported no cases to Ultiworld include several who described well-organized testing protocols and COVID-19 response plans, suggesting they would have been likely to detect and report any positive cases if they had occurred. A contact from a team with no cases said, “Our team tried to be very conscious, and I think our efforts paid off. We asked our teammates, coaches, and any supporters to get tested before coming to Nationals. All tested negative, and [they] stayed among our team only the entire time. We also tested ourselves when we left to make sure and all came back negative.” Another team with no positive cases among Nationals attendees reported that, following a positive test result from a teammate the week before the tournament, the team held a meeting to decide whether to attend; a handful of players opted not to travel due to COVID-19 concerns, and players who did attend tested daily.
Up to this point, USA Ultimate’s 2021 club and college seasons had been largely free of major COVID-19-related disruptions, apart from some controversy surrounding a single positive case at SFI West. The tournament followed USAU’s recently-updated COVID-19 regulations for national events, which require proof of vaccination or proof of a negative PCR for all participants, as well as contact tracing protocols in which any close contact of a confirmed positive case must quarantine for 14 days if unvaccinated or leave the site until they can provide USAU with a negative PCR test taken at least 5 days after exposure if vaccinated.
USAU has conducted contact tracing for teams and media organizations who reported positive tests at the tournament; Director of Communication Andy Lee said that the organization has communicated extensively with teams and players that reported positive tests and close contacts during and following the event as part of the contact tracing process, but does not have further comment at this time.
While the omicron variant had been on the rise through early December, the tournament came almost precisely as an especially marked surge in reported cases began to take hold; daily case charts for late 2021 show a sharp inflection upward around December 15-17, when teams, staff, and other attendees were already traveling. Now, many colleges are delaying their return to in-person instruction to avoid a spike in cases after the holidays, give students additional time to get booster shots, or assess overall case numbers before committing to a full on-campus spring semester.
USAU’s spring college season begins this week, with early-season staples Florida Winter Classic set to be held on January 15-16 and Santa Barbara Invite on January 28-29. January social tournaments LeiOut and LA Throwback have been canceled.
Media partners go through the same contact tracing protocols as teams, and USAU has worked with Ultiworld on contact tracing after the tournament. ↩