The feedback that pushed Iowa State from 40-percent stadium capacity to not allowing fans at its season opener

Iowa State's President's Chair in Statistics said the school's claim that the 'actual number of positives is small' was 'nonsensical'

One day after The New York Times identified Ames, Iowa, in late August as the metro area with the greatest number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., relative to population over the previous two weeks, Iowa State announced that it would allow roughly 25,000 fans inside Jack Trice Stadium, or around 40 percent of its capacity, for the Cyclones’s football home opener against Louisiana.

Two days later, the university reversed course and announced it wouldn’t allow any fans at the game after Iowa State President Dr. Wendy Wintersteen went through a process that Athletic Director Jamie Pollard described as “weighing feedback she has received from the community.”

Roughly a month and a half later, in October, there was a similarly short lifespan for an indoor Nebraska football watch party, which was scheduled to be held inside Pinnacle Bank Arena during the Huskers’s football season opener against Ohio State. It was canceled one day after it was announced, and the events at both Iowa State and Nebraska showed the influence of public and private feedback in response to a university’s decision to gather fans to watch a sporting event amid the pandemic.

The sources of the feedback that Wintersteen received as cases totals were spiking in Ames included the university’s President’s Chair in Statistics, a senior at Iowa State, the concerned mother of a freshman and an Iowa State alum who still lives in Ames, based on emails Out of Bounds obtained via a public records request.

In an email sent to the Iowa State community on Aug. 31 – the day that Iowa State announced the 40-percent stadium capacity for its season opener – Wintersteen wrote that the second week of the semester (Aug. 24-30) resulted in a positivity percentage of 28.8 percent among more than 1,700 students, faculty and staff who were tested, but Wintersteen wrote that the percentage was “not unexpected.” The positivity percentage had more than doubled from the previous week, when it was 13.6 percent.

Wintersteen shared a quote from Dr. Alex Ramirez, a professor of veterinary diagnostic and preventive medicine who serves as a faculty advisor to Iowa State’s Public Health Team. Ramirez said that despite Iowa State’s positivity percentage, the number of positive cases on campus was actually small compared to the campus population.

Within two hours of receiving Wintersteen’s email, Alicia Carriquiry, an Iowa State professor and the President’s Chair in Statistics, responded to Wintersteen, telling her Dr. Ramirez’s quote was “nonsensical.”

“Wendy, the statement ‘While the percentage of positive cases among those tested is relatively high, the actual number of positives is small when considering the entire campus population. Because the university is taking a targeted approach to testing, it is minimizing the risk to others.’ is nonsensical,” Carriquiry wrote, “as I am sure you realize by taking a ‘targeted approach’ to testing, no one’s risk is minimized.”

Iowa State’s targeted approached to testing only included symptomatic individuals, those who had been exposed to someone who had tested positive, and athletes, according to Wintersteen’s email to the campus community.

“In fact,” Carriquiry wrote, “to minimize everyone’s risk what you need to do is establish a testing plan that relies on probability sample of students, faculty and staff, and that would allow us to estimate, with a desired degree of confidence, the ACTUAL prevalence of infections at a given time. We are all flying blind by not having any idea of the proportion of infected (symptomatic or not) persons on campus. It does not have to be this way, and I wish you established a statistically sound approach to testing.

“As you well said it, positivity tells us exactly nothing when the sample is so ridiculously biased.”

Wintersteen’s inbox is yet another reminder of the connection between a football team or an athletic department and the local campus community. That was the concern with Notre Dame’s field storming after the Fighting Irish knocked off No. 1 Clemson in double overtime.

One emailer, Alyssa Kichula, wrote to Wintersteen that she typically believes the university shows pride and care for its community.

“But I saw no such care and respect in the recent decision by the athletic department, with your blessing, to allow up to 25,000 fans to attend football games at Jack Trice Stadium during the season opener next weekend,” Kichula wrote. “I encourage you to reconsider your support for this plan and recommend that fans be prohibited from football games until the virus is under control. And yet, somehow in the same week that our community is being reported to have the fastest increase in cases in the country, the University has decided to allow the stadium to reach upwards of 40% of its capacity and gather thousands of individuals in a single place, but the plan itself recognizes that attendees might not follow those recommendations.

“For attendees, the consequence for not following mitigation efforts at this first game is that no fans will be allowed to attend future games this season. But what are the consequences for our community when those fans don’t follow the guidelines? And beyond our city, what are the consequences for those communities around the state who will have residents that visit our outbreak hotspot return as potential vectors of this virus? Many of these communities may not be as equipped to handle Covid-19 cases as our local Mary Greeley Medical Center.

“Our local hospitals are already seeing an increase in admissions of Covid-19 patients. This is unfortunately not the time to attempt a ‘return to normal’ when it comes to sporting events. As cases explode on and off campus, the University has done little to prove it is ready to lead the nation in creating a safe return to sports spectating. The MLB, NBA, and other major sports organizations have agreed that having in-person attendees is too risky. I am begging you: please don't put our community at risk for the sake of ticket sales and alumni donations. If our community members' lives have any worth to you, I encourage you to show real leadership and demand that the athletic department prohibit fans from football games this season. Don't make our community the guinea pigs of this doomed experiment.”

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One Iowa State senior, whose name was redacted by the university, wrote to Wintersteen on Sept. 1 that the last thing he or she wanted was to for the university’s classes to be moved completely online in the student’s final year of college.

“However, looking at the increase in positive tests here at Iowa State is a huge sign that we need to be pushed toward fully online,” the student wrote. “As a college president, I am sure you are aware that the students are not going to just come to take classes and that there is a social life associated with this part of our life. Being on campus only booms those social outings and gatherings. If the university went fully online, many students would head for their hometowns leaving the campus and Ames all together. I think this would benefit the massive outbreak that has happened in Ames and Story County.”

Wintersteen’s response to the student ended by telling the senior that students can contact their academic adviser if they feel more comfortable taking online classes:

“Many courses already have an online option. If a student is more comfortable moving to online classes, we encourage them to contact their academic adviser to explore options or contact the Dean of Students Office. We know we cannot eliminate the risk of COVID-19. Ultimately, we support our students in making the best decision for their individual circumstances.”

It was a similar refrain as the Pac-12’s response to the #WeAreUnited movement in which a group of Pac-12 athletes wrote in The Players’ Tribune a list of demands in August that addressed health and safety protections, racial injustice, and economic freedom and equality.

Part of the Pac-12’s statement in response to the #WeAreUnited movement stated, “We have made it clear that any student athlete who chooses not to return to competition for health or safety reasons will have their scholarship protected.”

That sentence was even underlined for extra emphasis in an email Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott sent to the conference’s leadership team.

In another internal email obtained by Out of Bounds, Oregon State AD Scott Barnes expressed a similar sentiment to members of the university’s administration, writing, “We have talked as a P12 AD group and our position is that these individuals simply do not have to play. It is up to them.”

Scholarship protections were one of the #WeAreUnited demands and it was granted, but doing so was the bare minimum. Rather than ceding any significant ground to its athletes, Pac-12 administrators expressed that their athletes could simply opt out of the 2020-21 season if they had any concerns, which only puts a band-aid on the bigger issues voiced by the athletes. Likewise, when members of the Iowa State community expressed to Wintersteen that they had concerns with the spread of the virus in Ames and around campus, she or her assistant wrote in multiple emails obtained by Out of Bounds that students could simply choose to take their classes online, which is essentially the academic version of telling an athlete that he or she can choose to opt out.

In fact, multiple emails obtained by Out of Bounds showed that Wintersteen or her assistant responded to concerned members of the Iowa State community with a boilerplate response, with some version of the same paragraphs that were nearly written word for word.

When a woman named Kate, who’s the mother of a freshman at Iowa State and whose last name was redacted by the university, wrote to Wintersteen that the decision to allow 25,000 fans in Jack Trice Stadium was “profit driven,” Assistant to the President for Communications Megan Landolt closed her three-quarter-page response to the concerned mother with a very similar paragraph to the one listed above, about how students can elect to take online classes.

But the mother’s primary concern was about 25,000 fans attending a home football game, not her son’s class schedule.

“He is pretty much quarantining himself and he says the virus is everywhere,” the mother, Kate, wrote to Wintersteen. “Ames, you must know, is one of the worst cities in the world for the virus. Please help me understand why one would choose to bring 25,000 people together to watch football in 12 days.

“I have watched you make some very solid decisions, testing in advance and a well thought out move in process. But there have been missteps as well. Allowing a day long party event before school even begins. That started the massive spread. You are now doubling down by allowing people from throughout Iowa to come to Ames and sit in a stadium together. When you know better, you do better. This decision is profit driven by your AD and does not protect the students you are responsible for. Conscious leadership requires one to put people first. I implore you to be one.”

There were multiple emails that Landolt, the assistant to the president, forwarded to Wintersteen, along with comments like “A happy note” or “Another happy note,” apparently to offset the critical feedback the administration had received.

Iowa State wasn’t just under fire for its decision to open the doors to Jack Trice Stadium to 25,000 fans, but also for the university’s perceived role in contributing to the state of Ames in late August and early September.

Ian Johnson, who wrote that he’s a former Iowa State student and a resident of Ames, wrote to the president’s office on Aug. 29. “As I’m sure you may be aware, there has been a massive spike in cases since students have come back,” Johnson wrote. “It is abundantly clear at this point that in-person classes must be canceled to prevent further community spread. Rather than chastising students for their supposed role in spreading the virus, the ISU administration needs to accept responsibility for their decision to have classes meet in person. It goes without saying, but people in our community will die from Covid-19 as a direct result of the decision to reopen classes.”

The next day, Johnson followed up with a link to the story from The New York Times that named Ames, Iowa, as the worst metro area in the country in terms of increase in cases relative to population.

The graph below from The New York Times shows the spike in cases in Ames in late August.

On Sept. 2, members of the Iowa State Student Government Senate introduced a bill that recommended that the university move all of its classes online, that it work to move as many students as possible out of Ames, and that Iowa State shares its resources to help Ames “in the event of a significant COVID-19 outbreak in the Ames community.” It was a formal proposal to do what concerned members of the campus community had asked of Wintersteen in emails.

The bill was introduced the same day that Iowa State reversed course and announced that fans wouldn’t be allowed at the Cyclones’s home opener.

That’s because, right now, all of this is connected – from a national level to a state level, to a college campus, to a football team.

All of it.

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Recap of the last newsletter

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“The clause protects Texas Tech and its opponents from a number of potential doomsday scenarios, and it feels like the U.S. has experienced about half of them this year. In a year that has featured news coverage about “Murder Hornets” and deadly mosquitoes, on top of the pandemic, raging forest fires, hurricanes, the deployment of the National Guard and an alleged plot by militia members to kidnap a governor, it’s probably prudent for the legal departments at universities to be as thorough as possible when writing their force majeure clauses, even if they sometimes read like a book in the Old Testament, a chapter in an ancient history textbook or a synopsis of a season of 24.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.