EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — As if the UTEP-Rice football saga could not get any crazier — it just did.
For those playing catchup, UTEP’s football game at Rice last Saturday was canceled due to multiple positive cases of COVID-19 within the Miners’ program. The move to cancel the game was made right before the scheduled kickoff time in Houston.
As KTSM reported, UTEP has regularly tested members of the football team on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in El Paso. This includes weeks where the Miners are scheduled to play on the road, although in some cases, the final round of testing is administered on Thursday night’s ahead of a long or early flight.
However, last week’s final round of testing was done a little differently. At the request of the Rice athletic department, members of the UTEP football program were tested upon their arrival in Houston. They were not tested in El Paso before getting on the team flight, largely in part due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
“UTEP Athletics has aggressively tested our football players and staff for COVID-19 on a consistent schedule since training camp in early August,” said UTEP director of athletics Jim Senter. “In early October, Rice officials asked if we would do a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test upon arrival in Houston the day before the game. We agreed to their request because we would have already conducted two of our three required tests for the week. With the Thanksgiving holiday and early departure time on Friday, it would not have been possible for us to have completed our testing and received the results before departing for Houston.”
According to Senter, everyone in UTEP’s party received a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on Friday in Houston. The results from those tests came in on Saturday morning showing one student-athlete tested positive for COVID-19. It was then an additional round of testing was agreed upon by both programs and carried out, only this time, rapid antigen tests were administered to everyone in UTEP’s party. Shortly after being tested, 10 results came back positive and the decision was made to cancel the game.
Those who tested negative and were not deemed high-risk close contact individuals, took a chartered flight back home to El Paso. Members of the program who tested positive or were deemed high-risk close contacts, took a chartered bus back home from Houston to El Paso.
The decision to bus 23 individuals home, over 700 miles, was not taken lightly. Sam’s Limousine, a local transportation company in Houston, provided one chartered bus and two drivers who both had the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) on.
“We could not, in good conscience, let any of our student-athletes — who we are responsible for — get on a commercial flight and fly anywhere,” said Senter. “No one wants to take a 13-hour bus ride. We all know that. It’s unfortunate, but that was safer than any other scenario we could come up with to try to get these kids home and get tested as quickly as we possibly could.”
On Monday, UTEP administered another round of PCR tests and all 10 individuals who tested positive on Saturday, tested negative on Monday. Those results are being referred to by the athletic department as false positives.
“The PCR test is recognized as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing,” said Senter. “We have received the results, and all 10 of the individuals who tested positive with the antigen tests on Saturday tested negative today. The challenges associated with false positives with antigen tests have been widely publicized. The false positives we experienced illustrate the problem with antigen tests as a tool for decision making for athletics competition. We are working with our team doctors, sports medicine professionals, and campus officials to plan our return to practice and play for the football program.”
Earlier on Monday, UTEP head coach Dana Dimel addressed the media and believes he made a mistake in agreeing to Rice’s terms to play, which included the agreement to test in Houston. Had UTEP not agreed to test in Houston, the tests would have been done in El Paso before getting on the team flight.
It will remain a mystery if Rice would have still agreed to play UTEP.
“As it [final round of testing] got closer and closer and became more of a reality, I started asking myself the same questions. What do we do if someone does test positive there? What happens next? They’ve been on the plane and it just didn’t make any sense,” said Dimel. “Once I put my mind to it — because it just doesn’t make any sense — no one else does it that way. I made a mistake.”
As it stands, UTEP will conduct another round of testing on Thursday. It is then a determination will be made if they can continue the season. UTEP is scheduled to host North Texas in the Miners’ season finale on Saturday, Dec. 12.