UK strain of COVID-19 hit U of M athletics in February

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: March 11, 2021 4:15 PM CT | Published: March 11, 2021 11:46 AM CT

In early February, two people connected to University of Memphis men’s basketball program tested positive for the U.K. strain of the coronavirus. By the time the cluster was under control in late February, 29 of 31 positive tests were for the variant.

The university paused the basketball program Feb. 9 and for the few next weeks, tested nearly the entire men’s basketball program every day — and at one point tested everyone in the entire athletic program to make sure it had not spread.

“It is hard to contain … the pausing you put in place allows you to contact trace and to determine the extent of the problem. It also allows university staff to properly clean all athletic facilities,” said Darrell Turner, associate athletic director for sports medicine at the university.

“They are college students, and at the end of they day, they are still very young and want to be around each other,” he said.

Under Centers for Disease Control guidelines, those who tested positive and their close contacts had to be completely isolated from each other for seven days and test negative at the end. They were not allowed in university buildings outside South Hall where many spent their week of isolation.

Dr. Manoj Jain, infectious disease expert who advised the university, said the university did a “superb job” of tracing, isolating and quarantining those affected.

UK variant numbers rising in Memphis

“They were aggressive in isolating those individuals and quarantining all of their contacts. And then the critical step was testing. I mean vast levels of testing,” Jain said.

The university continues to test and keep athletes separate from its general population.

The level of contagion in the university cluster is a wake-up call, officials say, for how quickly the U.K. variant — or B.1.1.7 — can spread, particularly in a closed community such a as campus or workplace.

“That is why we wanted to show people; this is an example of how rapidly it spreads and how it can be contained successfully. Others need to model what the University of Memphis did,” Jain said.

Since January, the city has been ramping up its capacity to sequence the genome of the SARS CoV-2 virus. Scientists doing the work at the U.S. biocontainment lab at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Poplar Healthcare are looking for telltale signs, including the S drop.

B.1.1.7 has a specific mutation in the S-gene, which results in a deletion of two amino acids. When PCR tests for coronavirus are processed on specific lab equipment, the S drop can be quickly identified.

Variants of the virus began showing up in December and January in Shelby County, when a total of six were identified from the 5% or fewer specimens that were being sequenced.

“We had a five-fold increase in detections in February. And we continue to increase the amount of sequencing that’s going on in the county,” said Shelby County Health Department epidemiologist David Sweat.

About 80% of the variants detected here so far are U.K. strain, which is considered three times more contagious than the Wuhan strain. The Wuhan strain is still dominant in Shelby County.

The university got word quickly that several S-drop specimens from the team had been identified by American Esoteric Laboratories, which runs the university test specimens.

“AEL has been unbelievable,” Turner said. “We communicate daily. If we have positives, they are able to determine who is positive. We get a turnaround that’s really quick. When you look at college athletics, it’s a machine. It goes on every single day, so you have to get those results quickly or you could have an issue. It burns through your teams.”

At one point, most of the basketball program was under quarantine, he said.

More than 10% of the positive tests in Shelby County now are being sequenced as researchers watch carefully for upticks in the level of the variants, which would indicate community spread.

Because the emphasis has been on sequencing suspicious test specimens, no one knows what percentage of the total tests may be variants.

“Now, we want to sort of pivot away from that and say, ‘How much is in the community, what seems to be the pattern circulating,” Sweat said. “That’s going to be critical for us to know... Are we approaching a threshold, a tipping point that would escalate the number of cases?”

Epidemiologists say that 50% is the tipping point or trigger for when cases quickly escalate.

The Health Department and the university learned much together last fall when a larger cluster affected the football team, Sweat said.

“The university and the Health Department have been building on our relationship from the last outbreak and had really gone through already what the best practices were for contact tracing and isolation and quarantine measures,” he said.

Snowstorms in mid-February helped because they confined the campus and kept people from being able to travel.

“My understanding is they had a whole bunch of students in the cluster that had broken out, and candidly it was fortuitous that it didn’t go larger and quicker, particularly when you have that group of students together,” said Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the College of Medicine at UTHSC. 

“They got to test a broad segment of the campus immediately and fortunately, most of those students were negative. If most had been positive, you would be telling a different story.”


UK variant Memphis Athletics University of Memphis Covid-19 Task force American Esoteric Laboratories Dr. Manoj Jain

Allyson Brown

After living in Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, California and Ohio, Allyson is happy to be home in Memphis. If you take a look by the Houston High School track, you can still catch her name on the leader board. She likes good food, music and sports. If you have a suggestion about one or the other, send it her way. Also, she’s happy to hear your story ideas.

Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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