After barring fans from attending sporting and arts events during the 2020-21 school year, UB welcomed spectators back at full capacity in August for football games.
But after playing the first month of the season in front of a mostly unmasked crowd, the football team played its most recent home game against Western Michigan in front of vaccinated spectators, following a change in university policy. The new rule states that all spectators are required to receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 1, and be fully vaccinated by Oct. 30.
The university is making the transition to “a new normal,” but there are still many uncertainties in light of the Delta variant and potential booster shots.
The Spectrum spoke with UB Director of Sports Medicine and Wellness Services Brian Bratta to address concerns with the Delta Variant, booster shots, unvaccinated athletes and UB’s new vaccine mandate for spectators.
The Spectrum: How was handling the return to football and other sports last season considering the COVID-19 protocols in place? Was that like anything you've ever experienced in your career?
Brian Bratta: “Last year was definitely a challenge with all of the protocols in place to keep everyone as healthy as possible. The entire Department of Athletics had to abide by specific guidelines involving testing, masking and participation in sports. This was something that we have never faced before, so we were meticulous with every detail. When we initially brought student-athletes back in the summer, prior to pre-season, we had to take a phased approach to returning to campus as well as returning to participation in their specific sport.”
TS: Has handling COVID-19 prevention in athletics this year been different from last year in any way?
Bratta: “This summer and fall have been different in the sense that we have a high percentage of vaccinated student-athletes, coaches and support staff. We still have had to take certain precautions for those who either are unvaccinated or in the process of vaccination as well as anyone that presents to us with symptoms. We still have access to COVID-19 testing, but don’t have to test all student-athletes multiple times per week for practice and competition.”
TS: What are the biggest challenges you and your department have faced since the pandemic began?
Bratta: “The health and well-being of our student-athletes is always priority No. 1. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the entire department has had to pay attention to the little things in order to minimize outbreaks and allow our teams to have competitions. Travel protocols, meal protocols, health and safety protocols, and cleaning protocols have all been adjusted to create as safe an environment as possible. With all of these adjustments, our administration as well as university administration have been very supportive and have helped out with implementing and monitoring adherence to these protocols.”
TS: Fans weren’t in attendance this year. Now they are. Is there any increased risk of spread with fans in attendance?
Bratta: “Any time there is a large gathering of people, there is an increased risk, but with the plans in place to only allow fully vaccinated individuals into the stadium/arena, it is minimized, particularly in an outdoor setting like UB Stadium. We are following the same protocols Erie County enacted for the Bills’ and Sabres’ competitions, which were developed by public health and medical professionals to allow for attendance while still keeping the fans’ safety in mind.”
TS: What went into UB’s new vaccination requirements for spectators? Why was this the right decision to make?
Bratta: “Similar to the previous question, working with the Erie County Department of Health and the University Health Guidelines Committee, a plan was developed to maximize the opportunity for fans in attendance while keeping them as safe as possible. Knowing that every fan in the stadium is vaccinated minimizes the risk of bringing the virus in, and if it were to be present, most people would not become infected. In the event that someone was infected, we know that the vaccine significantly reduces the symptoms.”
TS: What protocols must unvaccinated athletes follow that vaccinated athletes don't have to?
Bratta: “Any student-athlete that receives an exemption from the vaccine must test weekly per the university protocols, in-season and out of season. During their competition season, student-athletes must test within 72 hours of the first competition of the week as well as report any symptoms to the sports medicine staff as soon as they notice them. This will warrant testing and precautionary quarantine until the test results are returned. In the event that an unvaccinated student-athlete is considered an exposure, they are required to quarantine for 10 days, and we will test them at days five and 10 to ensure they remain negative.”
TS: Have there been any talks of booster shots within the athletic/sports medicine department?
Bratta: “We are in constant communication with our team physicians, university physicians and county medical officials in regard to all protocols and plans around the COVID-19 pandemic. When the initial concept of boosters to the vaccine came out, we had a discussion but wanted to see what the research and CDC recommended. The majority of our population (18-22-year-old student-athletes) have responded well to the initial vaccines and currently, we are not planning to host opportunities for booster vaccines. Should a student-athlete or staff member be immunocompromised, they need to communicate with their personal physician and follow their guidance. We will continue to monitor what the recommendations are and if parameters were to change, we would follow the medical guidance.”
TS: How would you assess the university’s return to campus plan/execution this year?
Bratta: “UB officials have allowed their top medical professionals to collaborate with SUNY officials as well as Erie County and state medical officials to come up with the best plan possible for returning people to campus as well as allowing Athletic events to occur. I think they have done a good job in putting together information and presenting it to everyone coming to campus to ensure safety and reduce any outbreaks on campus. It has taken every department to work together for this to happen, and it is cool to see the community come together to help out.”
TS: Considering COVID-19 is still spreading and breakthrough Delta variant cases are occurring around the country, is another cancellation or postponement of sports still a possibility?
Bratta: “The Delta Variant has definitely thrown a wrench in the process of returning back to ‘normal,’ but I still think we are headed in the right direction. There may/will be other variants that will continue to be hurdles, but the vaccination process is decreasing the spread as well as decreasing the severity of symptoms. That being said, we don’t know what the future holds. There is always the possibility of things being put back on hold, but we are always working to stop or slow the infection rate and keep our student-athletes and staff as healthy as possible.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor at The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.