As COVID-19 continues to spread in our communities, Eastern Kentucky University Athletics is encouraging student-athletes to receive any form of the COVID-19 vaccine. Director of Athletics Matt Roan said vaccination is not a requirement, but student-athletes have been educated on the science behind the vaccines.
“We’ve had professionals come in, physicians come in that are independent from us, and we remove ourselves from the room where student-athletes can have those open, honest conversations and collect that feedback from those medical professionals about the decision whether or not to be vaccinated,” Roan said.
Roan is encouraged by the current number of vaccinated student-athletes. At this time, 87% of student-athletes have been fully vaccinated or have received the first dose of the vaccine. Roan said the goal is to reach a 100% vaccination rate.
“Whether or not we get there remains to be seen, but it’s not for a lack of effort. It’s not for a lack of education. It’s not for a lack of encouragement, but we also want to be very respectful of our student-athletes and our coaches and staff and the decisions they make,” said Roan.
Roan said the sport-by-sport breakdown is encouraging as well. Some programs have reached a 100% vaccination rate, but no team is at a rate that he would consider alarming. Roan did not provide the specific numbers by sport because he said the numbers get too close to releasing personal health information.
“When you’re dealing with a roster of 100-plus kids versus a roster of five or six, depending upon that sport, those percentages could be skewed just because of the sample size,” Roan said. “Right now, all 16 of our programs, I think we feel pretty comfortable about where we are, certainly our spirit squads, as well, we like the direction that we’re heading.”
Redshirt junior volleyball player Maddy Campbell received the COVID-19 vaccine in April. Campbell said the encouragement from the training staff helped her make the decision to get the vaccine.
“A big part of why I got it was because, at the time, I just wanted the world to get back on track and if I could play a part in that, then I would do it,” said Campbell. “They (the athletic and training staff) made it easily available to us all and it put me at ease knowing I was in safe hands with them. The training staff had a lot to do with it.”
Campbell, a New Zealand native, also credited international travel and travel with the indoor and beach volleyball teams as a reason for getting the vaccine.
“It just sort of felt right to protect myself and my teammates by getting it,” Campbell said.
COVID-19 protocols for student-athletes have also been adjusted with the increased vaccination rates. If a student-athlete tests positive or is exposed to the virus, the individual must quarantine for 10 days per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, state guidelines and local guidelines. However, vaccinated student-athletes are not tested unless they experience symptoms. Unvaccinated student-athletes are tested weekly prior to competition. Other changes include the loosening of social distancing requirements and capacity restrictions for athletic events. Events will now have 100% capacity for spectators and individuals will not have to social distance.
At the same time, certain protocols are still in place. Masks continue to be required indoors for fans and athletes not engaging in physical activity. During meetings or film sessions, players and coaches are expected to wear masks.
“The significance of this virus, the seriousness of this virus is still front and center in our minds. It’s something that we’re continuing to navigate and try to attack. In that way, year to year it’s the same. It’s just the way that looks and how you do that is a little bit different,” Roan said.
Some sports, such as volleyball, competed in masks last year. Campbell said wearing masks affected athletes subconsciously while performing. This year, athletes do not have to compete in masks due to vaccination rates, which Campbell said is freeing for athletes.
“Now that we’re able to get vaccinated and don’t have to wear the mask, you just feel free. It’s a lot of freedom,” Campbell said.
The number of student-athletes who have tested positive or have been quarantined to date this year compared to last is a ‘smaller number’ due to the vaccination rates amongst student-athletes, Roan said; however, he did not provide an exact tally.
During the 2020-21 seasons, zero athletic contests were canceled, but a handful were rescheduled due to COVID-19 issues within EKU programs. Roan credits this feat to the seriousness players, coaches and staff displayed relating to the virus.
“That’s a point of pride for us, the fact that we didn’t have a single game canceled because of an issue with an EKU student-athlete, coach or staff member,” said Roan.
As the athletic seasons begin, Roan said he is excited to welcome back fans and hopes continued safety measures do not deter people from attending events.
“We’re excited to welcome back as many fans as we possibly can and understand that, in indoor spaces, masks will be required for our fans as well and our student body, but we hope that won’t be a deterrent. We hope people will come out and that they’ll be responsible, they’ll look out for others, their fellow fans and fellow students … We’re very, very encouraged about where we are right now,” said Roan.
Campbell is also excited to have full capacity at games.
“We’re all really excited just because volleyball in general is such a fun sport and I’m so glad that people can come and enjoy watching us play,” Campbell said. “It gives them something to do as well and just to feel the support from everyone, it really helps us.”
For a schedule of fall sporting events, visit ekusports.com.