Colorado Springs, Colo. (August 19, 2021)—Last weekend, at the Select Flight Invite in Norco, Calif., an athlete on Dallas Public Enemy tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first known case at a USA Ultimate-sanctioned event since we first started sanctioning events again 14 months ago, including several national-level tournaments.
First and foremost, we are relieved and grateful to hear that the player who tested positive, as well as their teammates on Public Enemy, are in good health and that no additional positive tests have been reported from any of the 700+ athletes who participated in the event.
In the interest of transparency, and in response to a variety of media reports, social media dialogue and other communications, we felt it was necessary to issue a statement of our own in order to further clarify the sequence of events, elaborate on our policies and protocols, correct some misinformation and add some additional context.
Despite being fully vaccinated and testing negative before traveling to the event, the player began experiencing mild symptoms on Saturday morning. Before going to the competition venue on the first day of the tournament, the player instead took a rapid COVID-19 test, which returned a positive result.
The player reported the positive test to the team, which reported it to USA Ultimate officials and event organizers.
After consulting with members of our medical working group, we implemented our policy, which requires us to follow CDC guidelines as they relate to handling a positive COVID-19 test. The player in question was interviewed to confirm the precise timing of symptom onset and test results, and to verify any interactions with teammates and event participants in order to determine who qualified as a “close contact” as defined by the CDC.
As a result of this process, it was determined that several members of the team, but no other attendees of the event, were exposed as a “close contact.”
We then followed CDC guidance for the exposure of both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. As a result, two unvaccinated individuals on Public Enemy, who were determined to be exposed as “close contacts,” were removed from the tournament and instructed to quarantine.
The player who tested positive never went to the competition venue and was instructed to isolate.
According to reports from Public Enemy, we were assured that all individuals complied with those instructions and that no other team members were exposed to either the positive individual or the unvaccinated close contacts during the event.
Per CDC guidelines, the vaccinated individuals were notified of their exposure and were instructed to monitor for symptoms and get tested within the next three to five days. Also consistent with CDC guidance, these players were permitted to continue playing, as were all players who had not been exposed to the infected person.
When dealing with a sensitive medical issue such as this, we deliberately erred on the side of caution to protect the privacy of the individuals in a way that is consistent with legal advice we’ve received about communicating personal health information. As a result, we did not communicate more widely information regarding the positive test and the status of Public Enemy and its players. In hindsight, we understand that a broader, general communication notifying teams of the situation and describing the actions taken and their rationale would have been appropriate and helpful, and could have been done in a way that still adheres to best practices.
As a result, we are revising our tournament communication procedures around COVID-19 issues for upcoming events, continuing to strike a balance between protecting an individual’s privacy and providing relevant and important factual information. These procedures will be available to event organizers by August, 20 and will include a template for an email communication to participating teams when a positive COVID-19 case is discovered in conjunction with the event.
Forfeits and Sanctions
As the event progressed and participants became aware of the situation through word-of-mouth, some of Public Enemy’s opponents voiced concerns about competing against them. Some of those teams expressed a desire to forfeit games against Public Enemy. Following normal procedures, teams were informed that forfeiting games could result in removal from competition, which is consistent with our guidelines on forfeiting. Because additional sanctions are typically considered for forfeits, it was also communicated to teams that those were a possibility.
Those communications, which were occurring in real time and in a stressful, emotional and sensitive environment, were in no way intended to be a threat or otherwise pressure or coerce teams into putting their safety at risk. We realize that our words and actions did not reassure our participants, even if it was the understanding of event and USA Ultimate staff that, as a result of following CDC guidance, a baseline level of safety and reduced risk was being met, and that it could allow for the event to proceed under normal competition rules.
As tournament organizers, there is a degree of responsibility we have to inform teams of the possible consequences for forfeiting, and the reasons why those rules are in place, including considering how those forfeits affect the experience and expectations of other teams. It’s also important to consider how an event might proceed if teams are determining individually, on a case-by-case basis, the safety conditions other teams must meet in order for them to continue playing. We realize that we need to reevaluate this for future sanctioned events, so that we can navigate these situations that are equally stressful and difficult for organizers, attendees, athletes, and coaches alike.
We sincerely apologize for not communicating clearly that there would be no sanctions or other negative repercussions later in the season. We also apologize for any actions that led to feelings that participants’ health and safety were being threatened.
It’s important to clarify that no teams have been, or will be, sanctioned as a result of forfeiting to Public Enemy for health and safety concerns, or any other actions due to an apprehension to compete in a way that made them feel unsafe.
As with our communication procedures, we intend to review our forfeit guidelines, particularly as they relate to valid health and safety concerns around COVID-19. We will clarify how those rules will be implemented prior to the start of sectionals next month.
Updates to COVID-19 Protocols
Our medical advisory working group met on the evening of Wednesday, August 18 to review and update its guidance. As a result, the following revisions were made:
- In the case of a positive test, all “close contacts” with an infected individual will be removed from the event regardless of vaccination status. This goes above and beyond current CDC guidance for vaccinated individuals. *Note: According to guidance, generally playing an opponent will not by default be considered a “close contact” since it’s unlikely that the cumulative time spent within six feet of an opponent would reach 15 minutes. Specific situations on the field, sideline or elsewhere at an event could change this. Determination of “close contact” exposure will be based on details learned through the contact tracing process.
- Players who are removed from an event for infection or exposure will be required to provide a negative PCR test prior to returning to any future events.
This change was motivated primarily by an increased concern that vaccinated individuals are becoming infected with the Delta variant at a higher rate. By removing all “close contacts”, the group is comfortable that the risk of exposure at an event is low enough to return it to its original level of safety.
All other guidance, including our current policy to provide proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test or wear a mask in order to compete in a USA Ultimate-sanctioned event, as well as deferring to CDC, state or local guidance, remains the same.
Furthermore, the medical working group expressed its support of events being allowed to continue under normal competition rules, including forfeits, provided that protocols are followed to remove all infected individuals and “close contacts” from competition.
“The medical working group is focused on player safety and the safety of everyone in their communities, particularly in the context of COVID,” explained working group member and infectious disease specialist Dr. Bill Rodriguez. “Based on evolving data of the Delta variant and the possibility of transmission from vaccinated individuals, especially to vaccinated people, as well as the first known case of a player at a USA Ultimate-sanctioned event, the group recommended a change to our COVID policy.
“With this update, the group is comfortable that the risk of exposure to the competing players at the event will be just what it was when competition resumed. We can never reduce the risk to zero, but the updated policy maximizes player safety while enabling people to play ultimate. There will still be risks associated with traveling and playing ultimate and players will need to make their own personal decisions about whether or not to attend events. The group believes that as long as players self-monitor and commit to protecting each other’s safety, our current policies will help significantly mitigate the risks.”
Our current masking, vaccination and testing policy currently exceeds most – if not all – federal, state and local regulations for participating in outdoor sports. This policy has resulted in a high vaccination rate for USA Ultimate championship or other national-level events:
- USA Ultimate Masters Championships: 96%
- Pro Elite Championships: 91%
- U.S. Open (Club Division Only): 97%
- U.S. Open (Club + Youth Division Combined): 88%
- Select Flight Invite (East): 92%
- Select Flight Invite (West): 94%
Our members’ compliance with this policy has resulted in a low-risk environment in terms of both an individual’s likelihood of contracting the virus and spreading infection.
A single reported positive test across thousands of athletes and more than 150 sanctioned events since the pandemic began is a remarkable achievement and speaks to our community’s conscientious approach to the pandemic and willingness to comply with our health and safety guidance. We appreciate this considerate and careful approach by our members.
This first experience of dealing with a positive test at an event is one we will learn from and use to improve our policies and procedures moving forward. We recognize that we have a lot to learn in these uncharted waters and are constantly striving to get better. We also appreciate the respectful and thoughtful feedback provided by members of our community throughout the week that helped us to understand and address these issues.