Michigan doctor huddles with Big Ten task force on best prescription to kick off amid pandemic

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, doesn’t have the answers, no one does with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and how to return to some semblance of normal.

But Malani, who in her role as chief health officer advises UM president Mark Schlissel on the health and wellness of the university community, is in the thick of helping decision-makers determine when and how it will be best to have students and professors return for in-person classes.

She's also advising Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, offering her advice and expertise as part of a task force that includes a representative from each of the conference’s 14 members.

Dr. Preeti Malani

The NFL held its draft and released a schedule for the upcoming season, and Major League Baseball has sent a proposal to the players’ union for an 82-game season that would begin in July. While professional leagues continue to sort through options and possibilities, what about college athletics, football in particular? Will Michigan Stadium, the Big House, sit empty this fall? Will there be games but no spectators?

This isn’t for Malani to decide, of course, but her input is helping shape Michigan’s future as far as students returning for academics and, as an extension, the resumption of athletics. She and her 13 Big Ten colleagues on the task force meet weekly with Warren, and they’re sharing what each campus has done and considering for the fall. Schlissel has said he is hopeful Michigan, which suspended classes on campus two months ago, will have in-person classes this fall.

“The overall message I've gotten from the group is that everyone is hopeful and looking forward to the fall and hoping to find some way to get back to residential learning,” Malani told The Detroit News. “And different states, since we’re from Nebraska to New Jersey (in the Big Ten), are at different points in terms of where the pandemic is. Nebraska and Iowa never fully went to stay-at-home orders, New Jersey is still having a large outbreak, and everyone else is kind of in between.”

Back to class

Planning for the students returning to campus is an enormous undertaking, the attention to detail certainly not limited to testing for the virus, although that is a major piece to a fall return. There are considerations like class sizes, adequate social distancing in residence halls and cafeterias and wearing masks.

Dr. Preeti Malani, UM chief health officer, is advising Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren as part of a task force that includes a member from each of the conference's 14 schools.

“So thinking about all those pieces, it's designing a campus for the opposite of what campuses are designed for, in a sense. College campuses are places of gathering,” Malani said. “It's like one big mass gathering whether it's in the dining hall or the library or in the classroom, or in Mosher Jordan Hall playing Euchre, it's about that togetherness. Then when you have to tell people, ‘Well, you can't be together because this is how the virus spreads,’ it's a difficult problem.”

Malani said it has not yet been finalized, but there will be some sort of testing when students arrive at Michigan. She has examined this situation through the eyes of a physician but also as an instructor and a parent — her son attends UM.

“The decision to come back will require that our state is in a good place, but I'm very hopeful,” she said. “I'm hopeful as a parent, I'm hopeful as a faculty member and just as someone who wants to see people walking around campus again. It's very sad to walk around.”

As an alum and active participant in the day-to-day at Michigan, Malani also knows that football plays an enormous role in the campus experience, not to mention it oils the athletic department machine. Michigan’s athletic department projected $196.3 million in revenues for the 2020 fiscal year, and the football program is annually cited by Forbes as one of the most valuable teams in the country.

But first things first, Malani said, and that’s having student-athletes who had surgery earlier in the year return for injury rehabilitation, and a return to practices for a variety of sports.

“It wouldn't look like a normal training camp, but you could envision systems that would improve safety,” Malani said. “It's been very easy to say, ‘Our focus right now is on the health system and keeping the health system secure,’ and now it's like, “OK, well, let's open manufacturing.’ But I think the next steps are going to be these harder ones like, ‘Can we get kids back to summer camp? Can we get kids back to K through 12?  Will the swimming pools be open in the neighborhood?

“There are a lot of unknowns because there's no playbook on how to how to do this. Even if you do it in the best way possible, there will still be some residual risk. Something like tennis and golf would be lower risk than basketball.”

“It’s going to be driven a lot by the health care professionals,” says Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on how, or if, the college football season will proceed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh appeared Tuesday on “The Dan Patrick Show” and said many options are being considered for the football season.

“It’s going to be driven a lot by the health care professionals,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of different scenarios (are) being planned for, all options being looked at. The length of the schedules. Is it just the conference schedule? Do you play the games and a certain percentage of the fans can come? Or no fans can be in the stadium? All those things are being talked about and looked at.”

Crammed with worry

With social distancing of such importance, can the Big House reach full capacity if there are games this fall? And what about traveling to road games, which will involve planes and/or buses, hotels, and will all the venues share the same health safety measures?

“What I would just say is that there are a lot of barriers to having football or, really, any sport,” Malani said. “In my mind, some of it is the risks you have to take, like in the classroom with small numbers of people versus the risks that you could avoid. And I know that there's not any kind of decision on this, but really thinking about what it's like to have 100,000 people from all over the country show up, and would it be feasible in a setting where you have viral transmission and would it risk everything else, including the economy?

“There will be some good discussions that happen in the coming weeks. The Big Ten athletic directors are all in good coordination. This (task force) is an advisory committee, and no one has said, ‘What do we need to do to make this happen?’ I don't think anyone is thinking it's going to be that simple. I haven't heard anything very specific, because it's early, it's May, and people do want to be hopeful. It’s not just football, it's all sports.”

Ultimately, it is about the safety of the students, including those who play sports. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has said they are not professional athletes, and he doesn’t treat them that way and will not in this instance.

“If it’s about the safety of our student-athletes versus filling that stadium, I’d rather it sit empty until we’re in the position to make sure our student-athletes, our coaches and our fans are safe, and their health is primary," Manuel said recently.

The transition to online classes was not as challenging as it is now to determine how to re-engage and have students return for classes and sporting events since there is no known cure for the virus and a vaccine is still months away.

“As a fan of sports, I'm curious to know what could be done,” Malani said. “If you had told me a year ago every school and college in this country would be remote, I wouldn't have believed it. So I think some remarkable things can happen including switching seasons and rethinking things.”

How campuses move forward will also be determined by the awareness and vigilance of the students.

“That's what it comes down to is that everyone's behavior is going to impact everyone else's semester,” Malani said.

There are several months for research and listening to ideas before decisions will be made regarding classes and athletics, but Malani remains upbeat.

“Maybe when we are back to something that feels like normal, we will not take it for granted,” she said. “I'm more hopeful each day that we can return back to something that looks more like normal. And frankly, I'm willing to take it even if it's not perfect.”


Twitter: @chengelis