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Michigan athletic department: No choice but to shut down for 2 weeks

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan athletic department officials felt they had no choice but to shut down athletics for up to 14 days after receiving what they considered a mandate from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS). A spokesperson from the MDHSS said, however, it merely offered recommendations.

While there is disagreement regarding the language of an MDHSS memorandum dated and sent Jan. 23 to the Michigan athletic department and obtained by The Detroit News, the bottom line is Michigan athletics are paused “until further notice and up to 14 days” because of confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7, which spreads more easily. UM announced the decision Saturday night.

Michigan athletics, including men's basketball, has been suspended for two weeks by urging of the state health department as a response to positive tests of the COVID-19 variant in the Washtenaw County area.

Lynn Sutfin, MDHHS public information officer, in an email to The News on Sunday, wanted clarification of earlier reports and said this was not an order by the department but recommendations made to Michigan. According to the memo, the MDHHS “is recommending a very aggressive strategy that exceeds current program efforts.” This is in response to the “five confirmed (B.1.1.7) cases and additional suspected cases of the variant associated with sports teams at the University.”

The wording in a release Saturday night from UM, however, said athletics were pausing “under a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services decision.” One athletic department official on Sunday described the memorandum as a “strongly worded letter,” and another said it was interpreted by athletic department officials as a mandate that strong-armed Michigan into this decision.

The MDHHS, according to the memo, recommended Michigan suspend all practices and games for two weeks, and expand testing and public messaging about how to prevent the spread of the virus. All athletes, coaches and associated staff members are to quarantine for two weeks

“MDHHS sent University of Michigan officials a memo explaining our recommendations but has not issued any orders for the university to take any actions,” Sutfin wrote.

When asked in an email what potential penalties Michigan might face if it did not follow the recommendations, Stufin replied, “no penalties.” When told of that response, a Michigan athletic department official again said that was not the department’s interpretation of the memorandum.

The COVID-19 variant has been found to be 50 percent more transmissible, according to the MDHHS and a higher rate of transmission could increase the number of people who need to be hospitalized. There have been nearly 595,000 COVID-19 cases reported in the state during the pandemic and just more than 14,000 deaths.

There were 22 COVID-19 positive results involving Michigan student-athletes last week, according to data released by the athletic department last Friday. There were 2,240 athletes, coaches and staff members tested during that span, but there were no positive results among the coaches/staff. Michigan has implemented strict testing protocols since the return of athletes to campus last June, and an athletic department spokesman said Sunday that Michigan has been testing for the COVID-19 variant.

A source told The News there are no men’s or women’s basketball players or hockey players who have tested positive during the latest cycle of tests, and the majority of athletes on campus have not had close contact with the athletes who have tested positive for the COVID-19 variant.

The decision late Saturday forced a number of alterations to Michigan’s athletic teams, their travel and upcoming schedules. Along with the men’s and women’s basketball teams that are currently in season, men’s hockey, wrestling, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, indoor track and field, volleyball and cross country are competing, and the softball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse teams are on campus training. Michigan’s football team had begun winter conditioning.

Michigan’s women’s tennis team had to cancel a match against South Carolina on Sunday and was busing back to Ann Arbor, since it is not permitted to fly while under quarantine. The Pepperdine men’s tennis team had flown from southern California to play a match at Michigan on Sunday, but that was canceled. The cross country team has canceled participating in the Big Ten championships in Indiana next week and that likely eliminates the team from qualifying for the NCAA championships.

Over the next two weeks, the women’s basketball team is scheduled to play six games — vs. Purdue (Sunday), at Michigan State (Tuesday), vs. Michigan State (Thursday), at Rutgers (Feb. 1), vs. Minnesota (Feb. 4) and vs. Maryland (Feb. 7) — and the men’s team four games — at Penn State (Wednesday), vs. Indiana (Jan. 30), at Northwestern (Feb. 3) and vs. Michigan State (Feb. 6).

The men’s basketball team opted to play a scheduled game at Purdue on Friday night, despite a Boilermaker — starting guard Sasha Stefanovic — testing positive a day before the game.

The women’s basketball team postponed two consecutive conference games last month due to COVID-19-related concerns within the program. The issues occurred after a Dec. 9 contest against Butler, when the Bulldogs paused team activities the following day after a positive test.

Warde Manuel

"Canceling competitions is never something we want to do, but with so many unknowns about this variant of COVID-19, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread among student-athletes, coaches, staff, and to the student-athletes at other schools," Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement Saturday night.

Michigan’s football team canceled its final three games last season because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Last July the athletic department briefly suspended voluntary summer workouts in four sports – swimming and diving, field hockey, volleyball and ice hockey.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis