Last weekend the Arizona women’s basketball team traveled to two coronavirus hotspots in Colorado and Utah and played a Buffaloes team that, two days later, reported a COVID-19 case in their program.
That had UA head coach Adia Barnes on edge as her team prepared to fly back to Tucson from Salt Lake City.
“I think we’re safe because of the situation and the tracing, but it’s still very scary,” she said after a 77-60 win at Utah. “It’s scary because I don’t know. That could wipe us out for a week or 10 days, I think. That’s just how the season is gonna go.”
Unless, of course, the players can get vaccinated soon. The United States recently authorized vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna for emergency use, a huge step in ending the coronavirus pandemic.
However, so far the vaccines are only being distributed to healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, who are deemed to be at the highest risk of contracting and developing a severe case of COVID-19.
It could be until the spring or summer when vaccines are available to the general public, but Barnes believes college athletes “should get the vaccine faster because we’re at high risk a lot.”
Realizing that college sports pale in importance to the overall health of the nation, she popped back into a press conference Sunday to clarify her comments.
“College athletes should not get it first, but they should get it second or third,” she said. “For sure health workers, frontline (workers) have to get it first. But I’m saying before the general public, I feel like college athletes should get it because we’re competing. If you want to have us compete and have a season and be able to play basketball and we’re not in a bubble, I think that we have to get it because of the risk. Or otherwise you’re going to see games cancelled the whole year.”
The Arizona women’s basketball team has not had any games get cancelled this season, but the Arizona’s men’s team has had six games get called off because of a COVID-19 case within the opponent’s program.
Assuming college athletes cannot get vaccinated by March or April, the NCAA Tournament is in jeopardy of being affected by the pandemic for the second straight year.
Game cancellations and the lack of ticket sales during the pandemic have already caused college athletic departments to lose millions of dollars and lay off thousands of employees. Arizona is expecting a budget deficit of at least $45 million in this fiscal year.
While the financial or entertainment aspects of the situation aren’t likely to be enough for student-athletes to rise in the vaccination pecking order, there is an argument to be made from a safety standpoint.
College athletes are generally at a very low risk of developing a severe COVID-19 case because of their age and fitness level, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.
Miami cornerback Al Blades recently opted out of the season after developing myocarditis, a heart condition that has been linked to COVID-19.
Florida basketball star guard Keyontae Johnson was in critical condition after collapsing on the court due a heart problem, which people have tried to link with his bout with COVID-19 over the summer.
The Wildcats have three players—Cate Reese, Mara Mote and Helena Pueyo—with pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. Even Barnes, who gave birth to a daughter in September, is in that high-risk category.
Traveling across states for games and participating in a contact sport further increases their risk of falling ill, and Barnes certainly hasn’t been one to downplay the severity of the pandemic, mentioning several times this season that her team is one of the few in the country that still masks up during practice even though it isn’t required to.
“If we give ourselves the best chance to play and to be a little bit more safer or provide an extra layer of safety, I think it’s good,” she said on Nov. 29. “Wearing a gaiter doesn’t bother our players, so I think it’s been great for us. In a couple situations in the past two months it’s saved us from quarantine in probably three or four times. Because by wearing a mask and having that extra layer and being distanced, one person doesn’t shut down the whole team. If we wouldn’t have worn the mask a few times, our team would have been shut down a few times. And we still have had some situations where we did shut half the team down, but I gave our players the option.”