EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – The saga of the canceled UTEP-Rice football game continued on Thursday, as a Miner official confirmed to KTSM that all but one person involved with the football program had tested negative for COVID-19 for a second time since Monday.
As of now, UTEP will move forward with football activities and return to practice next Monday to prepare for its season finale against North Texas.
The game between the Miners and Owls was canceled last Saturday for, what was thought at the time, numerous positive COVID-19 cases at UTEP. However, KTSM has learned that the entire team was tested on Wednesday and Thursday; most – if not all – results have been returned as of Thursday night, with just one positive test result.
That positive result was the same person that tested positive last Friday that kickstarted the subsequent cancelation of the game.
Per a Rice request, the Miners were PCR tested on Friday when they arrived in Houston, instead of before they left El Paso, as they normally do. PCR tests are widely considered to be the most accurate tests. The testing in Houston elicited what is now the team’s only confirmed positive test.
As a result of that positive test, the entire team was given rapid-result antigen tests (less accurate) on Saturday morning, where 10 players tested positive, resulting in the game’s cancellation. Those 10 players and their close contacts, along with the original person that tested positive, were put on a bus back to El Paso, where they arrived early Sunday.
However, the group of 23 players and staff that were placed in quarantine on the bus have all since tested negative twice, as has the rest of UTEP’s team that arrived home in El Paso by airplane on Saturday. UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter termed those tests from Saturday as “false positives” on Monday, and with a second round of negative tests for the Miners on Wednesday and Thursday, UTEP feels confident the individuals are indeed free of the virus.
Last week, UTEP tested in El Paso on Monday and Wednesday, but did their Friday PCR tests in Houston, because that was the only way Rice would agree to play them. Owls officials told KTSM on Thursday night that that is a request Rice has made of both of its visiting opponents in 2020; Middle Tennessee and UTEP each met the request. The Blue Raiders beat the Owls 40-34 in two overtimes on Oct. 24 in Rice’s only other 2020 home game.
The university told KTSM that it was not a policy; it was a request Rice made of its visiting opponents that UTEP said was agreed upon in October. Conference USA is aware of the requests the Owls made of the programs scheduled to come play there in 2020.
“When we made the decision in October to move forward with our season, our president reached out to the campus CEO at each institution on our schedule to learn about their testing and bubble procedures,” Rice spokesperson Chuck Pool said. “We requested that they undergo a PCR test on Friday upon arrival in Houston. UTEP agreed to test here.”
Pool added that when Rice travels for away games, the Owls undergo PCR testing on Thursday and Friday, while taking an additional test earlier in the week. Conference USA mandates that each team test three times weekly.
UTEP’s decision to test in Houston backfired in a way; if the Miners had tested in El Paso before leaving as they normally do, the positive case would have been discovered in the Sun City, and the game likely would have been played. UTEP head coach Dana Dimel said on Monday that he regretted agreeing to Rice’s stipulations to test on Friday in Houston and not El Paso.
“As it got closer and closer and became more of a reality, I started asking myself the same questions,” Dimel said. “‘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. No one else does it that way. I made a mistake (agreeing to that).”
KTSM asked Senter if any consideration was given to testing on Friday before leaving El Paso, as well as upon arrival in Houston to meet Rice’s request. Senter said that while that possibility was discussed, it wasn’t feasible last week due to UTEP’s campus being shut down for the Thanksgiving holiday.
However, UTEP’s athletic director said he feels that the events of the last few days have proven that UTEP has good policies in place.
“The biggest takeaway I have from all of this is that the protocols that we have in place are working,” Senter said. “We made the decisions that we made in good faith and with all the information that we had at the time. As I think about it moving forward, I would have to think long and hard about why we do the things that we do.”
KTSM has also reached out to Conference USA for clarity as to why individual C-USA schools can make their own determinations and requests regarding when and where opponents will be tested for COVID-19, as opposed to there being a conference-wide mandate. The league had not responded to multiple requests for comment as of Thursday night.
The cancelation of the Rice game and subsequent fall-out resulted in UTEP also canceling this week’s Dec. 4 home game against Southern Miss. As of now, UTEP will return to practice on Monday, Dec. 7, with its eyes on preparing to play North Texas at home in the season finale on Saturday, Dec. 12.
The UNT game is a rescheduled contest, after the Mean Green were uncomfortable with coming to El Paso on Halloween due to the COVID-19 crisis in the Sun City. If the game gets played, it is unclear if it will be played at the Sun Bowl, or be moved elsewhere. Back in October, North Texas offered to play UTEP in Denton, a request the Miners denied.
In November, UTEP moved a game vs. UAB to Midland, but it was subsequently canceled due to COVID-19 cases at UAB. It remains to be seen if that might be a possibility for the Mean Green and Miners next week.
“This is what you have to understand: there’s not a checklist, or a playbook for any decision we’re making on a daily basis,” Senter said.