Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee discusses COVID-19 testing, Derek Mason’s future and facility upgrades

Student-athletes receive three COVID-19 tests per week, according to Candice Storey Lee.

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Candice Storey Lee in Vanderbilt athletics’ McGugin Center. (Style Blueprint)

Simon Gibbs, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt athletics director Candice Storey Lee addressed the media on Tuesday following head football coach Derek Mason’s weekly press conference. Lee, who had the interim label removed from her title in May, discussed a variety of topics including COVID-19 testing, Coach Mason’s future and facility upgrades.

Lee had not previously disclosed information on the COVID-19 testing process for student-athletes, but on Tuesday, she said that they receive three PCR tests per week on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

In addition to PCR tests, Southeastern Conference (SEC) member institutions also have access to rapid antigen COVID-19 tests for student-athletes, but Lee indicated that Vanderbilt is using them sparingly.

Originally, Lee said, the football team planned on using rapid antigen tests on Fridays, so test diagnoses were available by each game on Saturday. However, citing “some concerns about the false positivity rate,” Lee said Vanderbilt would only administer this test in certain situations, such as “when we are on the road and someone is symptomatic.”

Lee also commented on potential false positive tests, which resulted in Alabama head coach Nick Saban coaching the Crimson Tide on Saturday despite testing positive on Wednesday

“If you [were to] test positive on a Thursday, you would take a test on Friday,” Lee said. “If that was positive, then you’re considered a confirmed positive. If that was negative, you would remain in isolation, but then you would take, 24 hours later, another test. You would do that two more times, so if you had three negatives in a row, it’s then considered a false positive.”

If a student-athlete were to test negative three subsequent times and be labeled a false positive, Lee continued, they would be released from isolation and close contacts would be released from quarantine. 

Non student-athletes at Vanderbilt only receive one PCR test per week, administered by Vault Health. Furthermore, they were not provided with additional tests to confirm the accuracy of a positive result until Oct. 12, when Vanderbilt launched a retesting program for students who meet “defined criteria.”

Lee was also asked about the status of Derek Mason’s contract. Mason, who has coached Vanderbilt to a 27-50 record since his arrival in 2014, has received two contract extensions: one in 2017 and one in 2019. Though the details of Mason’s extension were not made public, university tax returns obtained by The Hustler say he was paid $3,299,614 in 2018.

“When I think about evaluation of our coaches, I think that’s ongoing,” Lee said. “[COVID-19] doesn’t impact the evaluation process. I think you reference the pattern of extensions, I haven’t really thought about that per se, in terms of what that timing is. I’ve just been thinking and working with Coach [Mason]. The expectation is that the product on the field is something that we’re proud of and that we’re putting ourselves in a position to compete and win all the time.”

In a subsequent answer, Lee spoke about facility upgrades, renovations and the budget necessary to implement changes.

Chris Lee of VandySports.com previously reported that former athletics director Malcolm Turner estimated the school would need roughly $800 million to renovate its facilities to the standard of other SEC schools. While Candice Storey Lee was unable to confirm that estimate, she stated that Vanderbilt is in the first phase of its facility renovation process.

“If you think about all of the things that we need to do, it may be that 800 million is not a far fetched number, I just can’t comment on it because that’s not a number that we have arrived at, not in any of the conversations I was in,” Lee said. “I would say that for a first phase, 800 million would not be your starting number.”

Lee did not indicate which program’s facilities would be renovated first, as the athletic department is not ready to speak publicly about the first phase. However, she noted that “from an infrastructure standpoint,” football and basketball are the first two programs that need upgrades.

“If we can get football out of [McGugin] and into a different space, that’s going to allow us to service all of our sports in a greater way,” Lee said. “[Men’s and women’s basketball] have one practice gym. And as you all know, we have one main court. To have the ability to have two practice courts, so that men’s and women’s basketball could practice at the same time if they wanted, those are real, tangible things.”

While the football program may not see substantial stadium changes in the near future, Vanderbilt will renovate the team’s locker room as soon as it is able, continuing a project that was brought to a halt by COVID-19.

“Because of COVID, we sort of pushed pause, as a university, on all of our capital projects,” Lee said, explaining why the locker rooms were not renovated. “Now we’re finalizing the design for that locker room. Right now, I think our projected timeline is, we would love to have it done before spring ball.”

“We will be able to actually do construction once the season ends,” Lee said. “That will be in December, but it’s roughly going to be a four-month project.