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Meet the people behind the NCAA's COVID-19 Advisory Panel

The COVID-19 Advisory Panel was formed to guide the NCAA’s response to the pandemic, putting membership, student-athlete and public health at the forefront

In early March, NCAA leadership started planning to create an independent advisory panel to help inform the Association about the emerging COVID-19 virus. The idea was to create an expert team representing diverse perspectives that could deliver the most up-to-date information to the NCAA membership, address complex questions and provide recommendations.

So, Dr. Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer, set forth on the task. Involved in sports medicine and neurology for more than 25 years, his network is extensive. He called medical professionals, team physicians, university presidents, professional sport league contacts, top security officials, and former and current student-athletes.

In about two hours, Hainline assembled a panel of seven experts — and four student-athlete liaisons — all with different perspectives. The opportunity to shape public health policy and make an impact during a pandemic brought a quick yes from those asked to serve on the panel. 

“We all knew our work would ultimately benefit individuals involved in sport, but also beyond the NCAA,” said Dr. William Schaffner, panel member and professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt. “The NCAA influences sectors of society beyond sport, and with a virus of this magnitude, we knew each conversation and decision would be analyzed by the masses and potentially have great influence. Public health decisions are ultimately life-and-death decisions.”

At the time, no one knew how quickly the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and other winter and spring championships would be canceled, but the panel members did know their collective perspectives would be relied on for recommendations to the NCAA Board of Governors that potentially would influence much more than just sport.

Amesh Adalja

It’s about 2:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, and Dr. Amesh Adalja is in a rush.

He is in the emergency room, and a patient he is seeing who is suspected of having COVID-19 just got back some concerning bloodwork. Adalja has worked on the H1N1 pandemic and went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, but working with COVID-19 patients has been the most challenging thing he has faced.

Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, spends about half his time seeing patients in the intensive care unit, emergency department or infectious disease unit, and the other half working on pandemic preparedness and policy work.

Coronaviruses have been on his radar since about 2003. They have been on his list of having pandemic potential, meaning they are made of RNA instead of DNA, spread through the respiratory system and move quickly.

“As a doctor making individual decisions each day, it is more challenging to make broad decisions and try and understand what a pandemic means for society as a whole,” he said. “The panel is working to understand how certain events should be managed going forward and how we can take the best actions to protect the public on a broad scale.”

Stephanie Chu

Dr. Stephanie Chu noticed there were hand sanitizer stations about every 10 feet. That was not typical of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament. Then, when she returned to the hotel, hand sanitizer stations were everywhere.

“That’s when I realized things were changing quickly,” said Chu, team physician at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

At Colorado, Chu and the rest of the team physicians serve essentially as the student-athletes’ primary care doctors during their time on campus, treating their illnesses and injuries and determining their return to play or practice.

Chu was at the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament during the advisory panel’s first calls, reporting live what she was seeing. She put together a group of other team physicians from around the country in an email chain to make sure their voices were heard on the panel.

“College athletes get colds all the time and are around each other all the time,” Chu said. “Right now, we don’t know if it is a cold or if it is COVID-19. We don’t want them to expose their teammate who might have asthma or their coach who might be older.”

Carlos del Rio

Dr. Carlos del Rio was involved in the HIV epidemic and has been involved in public policy related to epidemics for more than 20 years.

“This is the worst thing I have ever seen,” del Rio said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is the epidemic of our lifetimes. It is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

Del Rio, chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, is seeing COVID-19 patients at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Some patients are sicker than others, but the sheer number of patients has surprised him.

He thought it was important to take part in the advisory panel.

“We are in a critical situation, and it is for the good of everybody that we do the right thing,” del Rio said. “This is a time that we all need to do the right thing and to be a part of that, to give information to people during a very difficult time is crucial. Having different points of view is really important.”

Colleen Kraft

In 2014, Dr. Colleen Kraft received patients with Ebola virus at Emory University Hospital, where she is the associate chief medical officer. Since then, Kraft has been working to help health care workers and systems prepare for emergencies.

She has worked on improving testing abilities, health care system communication and innovation. But the COVID-19 pandemic is different than what she faced with Ebola.

“It is a much greater scale. With Ebola, we had the luxury of knowing when patients were coming, and we had the ability to contain them,” Kraft said.

But the work she has been doing has helped the panel think about how prepared the U.S. is and will be for large sporting events. Do we have enough tests or personal protective equipment? What types of supply chain issues are there, and why?

These are all questions Kraft has spent years thinking about. She currently is enrolling patients at Emory Hospital for a nationwide COVID-19 clinical trial in hopes that an intravenous drug they are testing helps patients.

Leon McDougle

Leon McDougle, M.D., M.P.H., is the first African American Professor with tenure in The Ohio State University Department of Family Medicine; and he is the first Chief Diversity Officer for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He is a graduate of the University of Toledo and OSU College of Medicine, he completed the family medicine residency at the Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, California, and earned a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Department of Health Management and Policy.
Dr. McDougle has been recognized as being among the top 10 percent of physicians nationally for patient satisfaction. He has been a member of the National Medical Association since completion of family medicine residency training in 1992. Other highlights include service as Chair of the NMA Aerospace, Military and Occupation Health section, Chair of the Committee on Administrative and Financial Affairs and election to serve as Treasurer and President-elect.
Dr. McDougle is a past Chair for the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Diversity and Inclusion. He has provided service for the AAMC as faculty for the Healthcare Executive Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, Minority Faculty Leadership Seminar and Mid-Career Minority Faculty Leadership Seminar. In addition, he directs several workforce diversity programs including the MEDPATH Postbaccalaureate Program.
He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Family Medicine and Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Dr. McDougle is a member of the Rhema Christian Center. He is a member of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. A native of Sandusky, Ohio, Leon and his wife, Natasha Jones-McDougle, M.Ed. are the proud parents of Peri and Autumn.

Vivek Murthy

As the 19th surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy was involved in addressing outbreaks, including Ebola, Zika and measles. He also has cared for patients and built public education campaigns on HIV, the opioid epidemic and e-cigarettes.

Those experiences came to the forefront of Murthy’s mind when he was asked to join the advisory panel.

“I understood that the decisions the NCAA would have to make would be difficult and potentially quite painful,” said Murthy, who also is a member of the NCAA Board of Governors. “I wanted to do what I could to support the organization in making the best decisions for staff and student-athletes.”

Murthy said the current pandemic may be the worst since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. But each public health response requires the same key traits — clear communication, broad testing, contact tracing, quarantine capability and surge capacity for the health care system.

Mike Rodriguez

As co-chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s Sports Leagues Sub-Sector Council, Mike Rodriguez has been involved in developing best practices on screening and security processes at stadiums and arenas around the country for the past 10 years.

Twenty-three years with the New York City Police Department. A supervisor in the FBI/NYPD joint terrorism task force that investigated 9/11 and the anthrax attack on NBC. A senior director of security for the United States Tennis Association and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. These are experiences Rodriguez has drawn on as a panel member.

“If it is not safe for you or me, it is not safe for student-athletes or the public. You have to make sure you don’t let other things cloud your judgment, and you always put health and well-being of the student-athletes and everyone else at the event first,” he said.

William Schaffner

When Dr. William Schaffner was drafted during the Vietnam War, he served the country by being accepted into U.S. public health service. He headed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and worked in the Epidemic Intelligence Service.

As an EIS officer, Schaffner studied outbreaks, specifically looking at the efficacy of a measles vaccine. That program is still in existence, and Schaffner continues to train EIS officers, including physicians and biostatisticians.

Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt, has worked ever since on control of communicable diseases — illnesses caused by infectious agents that make individuals sick, then can spread from person to person.

During the COVID-19 crisis, he is working with the CDC on defining the basic numbers of the pandemic. He is part of a network of 12 locations scattered all over the country that do data collection to make sure the country is counting every single case, so reports are accurate.

The student-athlete voice

As the Board of Governors Student-Athlete Engagement Committee chair and former Coastal Carolina defensive back, it’s common for Nicholas Clark to hear from college athletes. Text messages, Twitter direct messages, email — the questions and feedback come to Clark in all forms.

And it is his job to bring those thoughts back to the NCAA.

Most recently, the advisory panel gave him that opportunity. Along with Caroline Lee, Mary Northcutt and Isaiah Swann, Clark has served as one of four college athlete liaisons to the panel, representing the student-athlete perspective and providing information whenever possible.

Clark most recently has been involved in the Transfer Portal and name, image and likeness issues. But, he said, being a part of the advisory panel generated the most feedback from student-athletes. The biggest concern: losing a year of eligibility. The other liaisons agreed.

“Conversations with fellow student-athletes were extremely difficult, as most spend their entire lives working and chasing their dreams,” Clark said. “But I felt much better about being able to discuss these topics with them because I knew we had a very strong voice and chance to represent all student-athletes on the panel and say exactly what student-athletes would be worried about. We had representation.”

Swann agreed. The Texas-Dallas baseball player and NCAA Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee member said it was his job to put panel members in the shoes of student-athletes. A neuroscience major whose goal is one day to have a research lab of his own that studies autoimmune diseases, he knew public health was most important, but having a voice at the table and reminding members about eligibility concerns was invaluable.

“That might have been overlooked if we weren’t a part of the panel,” he said.