Mass vaccination of midshipmen not yet a game-changer for Navy athletics but could be by fall
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: April 13, 2021
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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Mass vaccination of the Brigade of Midshipmen has not really impacted the way Navy athletics operates amidst a pandemic.
Regular testing and contact tracing will remain a way of life for Navy varsity athletics for the remainder of the spring semester. However, athletic director Chet Gladchuk is hopeful vaccination on a nationwide basis will produce a more positive competitive environment for fall sports.
"Having everyone in the program vaccinated certainly gives us more of a sense of confidence," Navy men's lacrosse coach Joe Amplo said. "At the same time, the threat is still going to be there, so we have to remain vigilant."
Amplo and his assistants were all vaccinated through the normal public process. Navy men's lacrosse players got their first shot last month along with the rest of the brigade. However, having everyone vaccinated has not been the game-changer some might have expected — yet.
A major reason for that is because all the varsity sports still in action this spring are members of the Patriot League, which is still requiring Navy to comply with all COVID protocols. That means the Midshipmen must still get tested each week before playing conference contests and must follow all other procedures put in place to prevent spread of the virus.
"Right now, it's status quo. We're still conducting regular testing," said Jim Berry, associate athletic director for sports medicine with the Naval Academy Athletic Association.
"I'd say the biggest thing vaccination does for Navy athletics is provide a personal level of comfort and security. However, the Patriot League still dictates how and when we test. We still have to follow conference and NCAA guidance."
Berry pointed out a key factor informing the Patriot League decision-making process. The Brigade of Midshipmen only received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine last month. Shots for the second dose began going into midshipmen's arms last week.
Vaccinations are being done every Thursday and Friday, so the process of administering the second dose to all 4,000-plus midshipmen will take several weeks.
"Most people might not be aware of this, but you are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after receiving the second dose," Berry said. "Also, if someone who is vaccinated becomes symptomatic, you still have to treat that person as COVID positive until proven otherwise."
Navy varsity sports coaches and other members of the athletic department have been diligent about getting vaccinated on their own. Berry said the Naval Academy Athletic Association human resources department has done an outstanding job of informing department about when and where vaccinations are available.
Navy women's soccer is set to host Loyola Maryland in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament on Wednesday night. Everyone involved with the program will be tested Tuesday in advance of that contest.
While Navy women's soccer is still following all Patriot League protocols, veteran coach Carin Gabarra does believe having players fully vaccinated will make a difference moving forward if the Midshipmen advance through the Patriot League Tournament and perhaps to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think it will be a game-changer once the mids get the second dose," said Gabarra, noting Navy women's soccer has not had every player available for a single game this year due mostly to contact tracing.
It should also be pointed out that Navy is the only Patriot League member school that has all its spring sports athletes vaccinated.
"Our Brigade of Midshipmen has been very fortunate to have access to get vaccinated," Berry said. "Athletes at other Patriot League schools might not have access to the vaccine."
Gladchuk said vaccination and how various collegiate conferences react to that development is just "another step in the process" of the pandemic. He noted that information is currently being gathered and processed to determine that vaccines are effective.
"We're in the first step of that realization that vaccination can be a huge step forward for athletics," he said. "All the various conferences are beginning to review the vaccination information."
For an administrator like Gladchuk, there is optimism that mass vaccination of Navy athletes will ultimately lead to an elimination of regular testing. Testing all academy athletes multiple times per week has proven extremely costly, so there is a bottom line budget factor in play.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has already issued guidance stating that vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic do not need to get tested.
"Once the entire academy has been vaccinated in full, I know there will be a tremendous sense of confidence we will no longer have to administer all the testing," he said. "Unfortunately, the Patriot League has not come to that conclusion as yet, so we're going to test out for the remainder of the spring semester."
Gladchuk believes vaccination will be a game-changer come August when football and other fall sports are gearing up. He said American Athletic Conference medical advisory board is of the belief that vaccinated athletes do not need to be tested.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is still studying the issue and is not prepared to eliminate testing and contact tracing protocols for all its championship events.
"We're in a transitional period right now. I believe eventually everyone will come around that vaccination provides safe harbor," Gladchuk said. "As statistics prove the effectiveness of the vaccine, leaders will have more confidence that if vaccinated, you don't need to be tested.
"That's going to save money, eliminate cancelations, improve logistics, reduce anxiety ... right on down the line."
Berry agrees with that assessment and believes the overall environment will be demonstrably improved come late summer. He said the American Athletic Conference medical advisory board is being proactive in preparing and planning how to approach the football season.
"Everyone should be cautiously optimistic as we move forward with vaccinations throughout the United States," Berry said. "When we have this conversation in July or August, it's going to be a completely different story."
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