'Pretty rare’ false-positive for Bama’s Nick Saban allows him coach against Georgia

Alabama said Nick Saban was a victim of “false positive” test for COVID-19 when he initially was thought to be out because of quarantine for Saturday night’s game against No. 3 Georgia in Tuscaloosa. If that seems like a rare occurrence, well, it is.

Jeff Chambers, who owns Oconee Urgent Care in Watkinsville, just outside of Athens, figures he has performed “over 5,000 or more” tests for the novel coronavirus since the pandemic beseiged the southeastern United States in early March. Among those, he’s done upward of 1,000 of the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which is the particular kind that Alabama’s coach underwent this week in Tuscaloosa. To date, he has not experienced a false positive on any of those.

Chambers has does far more Rapid Antogen Tests (RAT, or “rapids”) and has seen some “false negatives,” but no false positives from either one.

“I have not seen (a false positive) on a PCR,” Chambers said Saturday. “We’ve done a thousand or more PCRs. We’ve done a lot more rapids, and we get some false negatives on it sometimes. But false positives on the PCR are pretty rare.”

Since he was pronounced out for the Georgia game because of a positive PCR test Wednesday in Tuscaloosa, Saban took subsequent PCR tests Thursday, Friday and Saturday. After those all came back negative through the SEC’s appointed lab, Saban’s initial test was declared a “false positive” and he was cleared to coach in Saturday’s game.

Chambers said the PCR tests are considered “the gold standard” of the COVID-19 tests. “It’s pretty sensitive because it’s looking for the DNA of the virus, so there’s not much cross-reactive activity to it. It’s not picking up a cold virus or something on it. So false positives are not very common.”

“I was wondering if they were ‘pencil-whipping’ a negative for him just to get him on the sidelines,” joked Chambers, a UGA graduate and longtime trainer with the Bulldogs. “But, no, I’m sure it’s legit. It’s just rare.”

The No. 2 Crimson Tide (3-0) and the Bulldogs (3-0) are scheduled to meet at 8 p.m. Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Here is the statement released by Alabama team physician Dr. Jimmy Robinson, through Alabama athletics communications:

"Upon evaluation today, Coach Saban remains completely asymptomatic. To address the potential for a false positive, the SEC Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force Protocol allows for follow-up testing to clear the individual’s return to activity. That protocol requires three negative PCR tests 24 hours apart.

"Because Coach Saban remained asymptomatic, he received PCR testing at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and today through the SEC appointed lab. Each of those tests were negative and were reported via the SEC’s third-party testing provider to the conference office in Birmingham. Those three negative tests satisfied the SEC protocol for a false positive. Out of an abundance of caution, two additional PCR tests were administered at the same time on Thursday and Friday and were tested by a separate lab. Those tests were also negative.

“Due to the fact that Coach Saban has remained completely symptom-free and had five negative PCR tests, split between two separate labs, the initial test from Wednesday is considered a false positive under the SEC protocols. Again, that initial positive result came from an outside lab we’ve used to supplement the SEC mandated testing. We have been in constant communication with the conference office throughout this process to ensure compliance with all applicable protocols. In accordance with the SEC Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force Protocol and with the approval of The University of Alabama System Health and Safety Task Force, Coach Saban is medically cleared to safely return to activity effective immediately.”

Shortly after Alabama released its statement, the SEC office released its own:

"Upon being notified by the University of Alabama of a potential positive COVID-19 test result involving Nick Saban, the SEC Office provided and reviewed with the university the COVID-19 management requirements established by the SEC’s Medical Guidance Task Force and emphasized the need to comply with all local and state health policies.

“Consistent with the Conference’s COVID-19 management requirements, PAE, the third-party provider secured by the SEC to standardize and provide testing for the 14 member institutions, has utilized the authorized laboratory in processing and reporting the three tests 24 hours apart as necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Task Force policy regarding the handling of asymptomatic PCR positive tests.”

At issue for the observing public is Saban’s head-to-head record against his former assistants, which stands at 21-0 heading into Saturday’s game. That includes 2-0 against Georgia’s Kirby Smart, his former defensive coordinator.

Regardless, Alabama athletics had already determined that any result Saturday would have been included on Saban’s record whether he coached or not. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian initially had been tabbed to fill in for the 68-year-old Saban.