ATHENS —The irony was not lost on Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Standing in front of a room of masked but not-socially-distanced reporters, Smart provided a somber COVID-19 report ahead of the Bulldogs’ first home game before a full-capacity, no-masks-required crowd at Sanford Stadium since Nov. 23, 2019.
“I think there’s this relief where (people) feel like everything’s back to normal, but it’s really just not for us,” Smart said at the Georgia football’s first in-person, pregame press conference of the year. “Because we have the most (COVID cases) we’ve had right now.”
Smart’s impromptu report came after he was asked to update the condition of Ron Courson. Courson, the Bulldogs’ hall of fame trainer and executive associate athletic director for sports medicine, tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday. He missed Saturday’s road trip to Charlotte, N.C., for the Clemson game and remains quarantined at home. In addition to Courson, Smart said Georgia has “three or four guys with COVID,” meaning players, and that does not include “a couple of staff members.”
Smart did not identify the players or staffers.
That trend is reflective of what has been happening on UGA’s 50,000-person campus. COVID numbers have been on a steady rise since students and faculty returned to the Athens campus in mid-August. This past week’s numbers weren’t available because of Labor Day, but the previous week UGA’s “Dawg Check” COVID-19 website reported 457 positive tests, nearly twice the number recorded the previous week (231).
As per the Georgia State Board of Regents and University System of Georgia policy, UGA is neither limiting seating capacity at 92,746-seat Sanford Stadium for Saturday’s home opener against the University of Alabama-Birmingham nor requiring masks for spectators. Tailgating also has been reinstated after a season-long ban last year.
Some football venues, such as LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours to enter on game days this fall. But the majority of stadiums in the South are not.
To say that Smart and the Bulldogs are being hypervigilant this week would be an understatement.
“I’ll be honest with you guys, I’m as concerned as I’ve ever been,” Smart said Monday after discussing Saturday’s matchup against UAB. “… For us, we’re at our highest spike. People are talking about vaccinations, well, these are people who have been vaccinated. We’re talking about breakthroughs. So that concerns you not only for the players on your team that are unvaccinated that are playing and not playing — because we want everybody to be safe — but it concerns me for the players that are vaccinated. We could lose one. It’s at the highest we’ve been since fall camp, right now.”
UGA last reported its vaccination rate for football players and full-time staffers at “over 90 percent.” But as has been documented by the latest spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, vaccinations do not totally prevent infections.
Meanwhile, Courson appears to be on the road to recovery. Smart did not say when the past president of the SEC Sports Medicine Committee will be back in the Butts-Mehre Complex, but it won’t be soon enough for the players and coaches therein.
“Ron’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my life,” said Smart, a notoriously hard worker himself. “He’s never not been in this building, any day. He’s never not been here two days in a row, including spring breaks. So, the off time, I think, is killing him to not be here. His health seems good and hopefully he’ll be back.”
Said junior offensive lineman Warren Ericson: “You know, it’s kind of crazy, because Ron never leaves the building no matter what. He works from sun-up to way past sundown. He’s definitely the hardest worker at the building. So it’s a little different. But, of course, our medical staff is great, and the people he’s built around him. So it’s really not just Ron. … We’re all still getting treatment.”