GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida will spend at least part of its training camp in a hotel as coach Dan Mullen searches for ways to avoid another COVID-19 outbreak within the program.
The Gators begin three weeks of fall practice Friday, with Mullen understanding much more about the coronavirus than he did a year ago or even a month ago.
“We’re going to have some protocols that we put in place,” Mullen said Thursday. “I think everyone’s a little bit more educated about it now moving forward. … I think there’s a lot more familiarity with it right now.
“When you look at our protocols, how we’re going about it within the ability to wear a mask, when we’re wearing them, what situations, indoor compared to outdoors, how we’re managing guys that have been vaccinated compared to non-vaccinated, I think we’re just a lot more educated on how we adjust within what we’re doing to keep everybody as safe as possible.”
Coronavirus hospitalizations are surging again as the more contagious delta variant rages across the country, forcing medical centers to return to crisis mode just weeks after many closed their COVID-19 wards and dropped other emergency measures.
The number of people in U.S. hospitals has more than tripled over the past month, rising from an average of roughly 12,000 to almost 43,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The variant has sent cases surging to 94,000 a day on average, a level not seen since mid-February.
Florida, Georgia and Louisiana account for nearly 40% of all the nation’s hospitalizations. Louisiana and Georgia have some of the lowest vaccination rates, with 38% of their populations fully inoculated. Florida is closer to the national rate, at 49%.
Mullen says the Gators “are probably over” the 85% vaccination threshold the Southeastern Conference requires, but he admitted he wasn’t sure about the exact number. Programs reaching 85% vaccination rate will not require players and coaches to test regularly or wear face coverings inside team facilities.
“I don’t want to get into the exact numbers because I don’t want to misquote it, but I think we’re at a very, very high level on the team and within the organization as a whole with where our vaccination rate is right now,” Mullen said. “I’m feeling pretty comfortable with where we’re at.”
A COVID-19 outbreak threatened to derail Florida’s season last October.
Mullen, at least two assistants and about 30 players tested positive for the coronavirus following a road trip to Texas A&M. Everyone on the team plane — about 75 in all — was quarantined.
It forced the Gators to shut down team activities and work remotely. The SEC rescheduled two games because Florida would not have had at least 53 scholarship players available.
When the Gators were cleared to return, they had to adhere to strict re-acclimation rules that included multiple cardiac testing and a four-day buildup for anyone who tested positive. It meant several days without a full-team practice.
Offensive lineman Stewart Reese said going through that ordeal left players and coaches more adept at handling anything they might face moving forward.
“You always want to believe that you’re going to go through the season with no issues, but that’s highly unlikely given the circumstances nowadays,” Reese said. “One of the biggest things Coach Mullen focused on was ‘prepare for the worst, prepare for the best’ and whatever happens, happens.
“Now I know what to expect and the team knows what to expect, so I don’t think it will be a big issue for us.”
Mullen, who made headlines last year by insisting he hoped to “pack the Swamp” despite the pandemic, chose his words more carefully Thursday. Of course, he’d love to have a full house when the Gators open the season Sept. 4 against FAU or two weeks later against defending national champion Alabama. But he refused to go anywhere near that topic on the eve of camp.
“You know, I mean, I coach football,” Mullen said. “I’ll be honest with you, that’s probably way above me. … There’s some people that would have better answers on that stuff.”