CONWAY — Coastal Carolina University announced an additional 27 active COVID-19 cases among on-campus students on Friday, pushing its current positive cases to 111 — just seven days removed from a home football game that saw a large percentage of CCU’s student section throw caution into the wind by not observing social-distancing nor mask mandates while on national television.
As of Sept. 23, there are 72 students listed as being in quarantine, while 39 students are in isolation.
The weekly average for students in quarantine or isolation dipped, moving from 183 in quarantine and 101 in isolation for the week ending on Sept. 16 to 100 and 38, respectively, for the week ending on Sept. 23.
CCU confirmed last week that its numbers are reflective of those tests that happen through the university’s student health center, as well as any positive tests self-reported by a student or staff member.
With the honor code in play, particularly among students that come and go from campus as classes have partially returned to brick-and-mortar, the health status of the hundreds of students in the stands at Brooks Stadium on Sept. 18 is cause for concern.
With ESPN cameras in their faces, many students did not adhere to the 6 feet of social distancing required by the South Carolina Department of Commerce upon approving Coastal Carolina’s home opener to hold up to 5,000 occupants, inclusive of both the CCU and Campbell University football teams and staffs.
In addition, students and fans alike were observed without masks — in their seats and in communal areas — another violation of the rules applied to all large gatherings in Gov. Henry McMaster’s Executive Order 2020-50 signed on Aug. 3, which limits gatherings to 250 people or 50 percent of the location’s occupancy limit, whichever is smaller.
McMaster did allow venues and organizations to apply for larger gatherings, which are approved or denied by the Dept. of Commerce depending on the plans in place to observe all health precautions set forth by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“Any time individuals refrain from wearing masks and socially distancing and they choose to take part in large group gatherings, disease transmission is very likely,” DHEC told the Post and Courier.
“Even those without symptoms can spread the virus and mass events increase the risk that more people could be exposed. This is why it is essential for event planners to allow for adequate distancing between attendees and encourage mask wearing and for attendees to take responsibility to ensure they practice those actions themselves.”
CCU received a blanket waiver from the Dept. of Commerce to host football, volleyball and soccer games this fall.
“The blanket event exception approval Coastal Carolina received was based on the outlined ability to adhere to applicable sanitation, social distancing and hygiene guidelines from CDC, DHEC and any other state/federal public health officials. Face coverings are included in these guidelines and strongly encouraged per the executive order,” said Alex Clark, the director of marketing and communications for the Dept. of Commerce.
“An approval would not be granted for an event, nor would any special dispensation be made (within that event), for any stated activity that would contradict the above guidelines.”
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is responsible for any investigation into public health violations with the executive order, mainly reliant upon complaints from the community.
To date, CCU is not under investigation for the Sept. 18 game, according to Tommy Crosby, SLED’s public information officer.
The student section did seem to catch the attention of university officials, with CCU football head coach Jamey Chadwell sending a campus-wide email on Sept. 23 to offer a reminder to students.
“I want to express our gratitude for the support we had this past Friday at our home opener vs. Campbell. Y’all brought great energy to the stadium and we continue to ask for your support throughout the season. I hope we can make you proud to be a Chant. Please keep following the social distancing guidelines so we can continue to have fun in Brooks Stadium,” the note read.
With 111 active cases on campus, the health concerns extended beyond the stadium and to the clusters of students that were observed walking home at halftime of CCU’s 43-21 win over Campbell, showcasing little regard for public health mandates, with most without masks and walking closely in large groups.
When asked if the university would put new protocols in place to monitor students returning to on-campus housing, the university did not provide a direct answer.
When questioned on whether or not a student that is currently in isolation or quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 case could have attended the game against Campbell, the university also did not offer comment, although DHEC did volunteer insight.
“Asymptomatic people who have the virus and don't know it or someone who has the virus and hasn't been tested could have been in attendance,” DHEC said.
In an attempt to understand how the university is tracking the health of the up to 5,000 people inside of Brooks Stadium, the university was asked whether fans or players have to fill out a health questionnaire prior to admittance. That question also went unanswered.
The university did offer this prepared statement:
“We employ a consistent practice to evaluate and assess every event we host regardless of circumstances and, if necessary, make adjustments and reinforce plans and protocols, including those related to COVID-19 precautions,” the statement read.
“We look forward to hosting our next home game on October 3 and we will continue to deliver messages to our all of our constituents about the gameday expectations and requirements as well as reinforce the need to follow all guidelines. This constant communication has been a standard University practice since the pandemic began.
“Our department spends significant time interfaced with other campus divisions when planning and implementing an event. This effort allows all areas (concessions, public safety, etc.) to receive and give feedback and we are constantly focused on improvement.”
As for the health of the football team, while the university did not provide an update on the team’s testing this week, the Sun Belt Conference itself offered the protocols that are in order.
“Sun Belt student-athletes who are in season are tested each week whether they have a competition or not,” said Nancy Yasharoff, the senior associate commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.
Coastal Carolina did provide this prepared statement:
“Regarding the student-athlete and team structure, we are following the combined requirements (inclusive of testing regimen, management of positive cases and close contacts, field and sideline expectations) set forth by the Sun Belt Conference COVID-19 panel (comprised of physicians and athletic trainers), the NCAA Re-Socialization of Sport guidelines, SC DHEC, and the CDC.
“Per these requirements, each event mandates a Sun Belt certification form signed by the medical staff (doctors and trainers) of both institutions attesting that all protocols have been followed in order for the athletes to participate.”
CCU is coming off back-to-back games against teams that had positive COVID-19 cases on campus.
According to Campbell’s university COVID-19 dashboard, the campus currently has 36 active cases, including 13 on-campus students, 22 off-campus students and 1 faculty member.
Last week, CCU Athletic Director Matt Hogue indicated that the traveling party that went to Lawrence, Kan. had been tested, but not because of the season-opening trip, but because of the upcoming game against Campbell.
The Kansas football team was considered a “COVID cluster” by local health officials prior to CCU’s visit to Lawrence — with multiple Jayhawk players sidelined by the virus.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can take between 5-14 days to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 — leaving the Chants within the window of potential infection.
Having fans in the stands also adds to the risk for the players, DHEC said.
“The coronavirus can be spread between individuals in any setting in which they are not practicing social distancing and are less than 6 feet from each other, especially if they are not wearing face masks or cloth face coverings,” DHEC said.
“The risk is increased in such settings when individuals are loudly talking, cheering, or yelling, all of which may produce more particles containing virus that also may spread further.”
In addition to the potential on-field spread of COVID-19, some members of the football team are utilizing the “hybrid” model of education, according to Hogue, meaning that they are in brick-and-mortar classes with other students.
“So the goal of testing is to be able to know who is a positive, how you have to manage your contact tracing and then once you’re playing the game, the goal is that if there were positives reported, those individuals would not be a part of the game,” Hogue said.
With five days before CCU opens conference play against Arkansas State at noon on ESPN2 — it’s third consecutive national television game — it is unclear whether university officials will deploy changes to its gameday practices, offering no response to the following questions:
- Was there a specific plan with the student section for Friday night’s opener?
- Was it a lack of enforcement or a lack of foresight to understand that it might be an issue?
- There were many families outside of the student section that also kept their masks on their necks — will security be instructed to monitor or continue to allow for it?
- It was actively observed that social distancing was not happening in lines for food vendors, will there be more security to monitor this?
- When media arrive for practices, as well as utilize the press box, temperature checks are given. There were no temp checks for fans on Friday, will that change?
Multiple attempts over four days were made to get these questions answered.