Ryan Taylor (left), the head athletic trainer at the University of Maine, squirts water into the mouth of football player Justin Sambu during a recent practice at Alfond Stadium in Orono. Credit: Ronald Gillis / UMaine athletics

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s lives.

Some folks have lost their jobs. For others, their positions have taken on added importance, which means more stress and longer hours.

That’s the case for college athletic trainers. Not only are they treating injuries, many also find themselves administering coronavirus tests to student-athletes, coaches and staff.

The athletic trainers at the University of Maine administer tests and document the results. Those at Husson University in Bangor assist in testing surveillance. All are doing contact tracing in the event of positive COVID-19 results.

“Trying to keep everybody safe is paramount,” said Janine Gmitter, the head athletic trainer at Husson, associate athletics director and the NCAA Senior Woman Administrator. “We know we can’t prevent it 100 percent, but we want to prevent an outbreak.”

In addition to the COVID-19 dynamics, athletic trainers are taking on more work. Rather than working primarily with athletes on a single team during a particular season, some are now doubling up.

The fall season was delayed until this semester, meaning those athletes are competing with the winter sports teams in addition to the spring sports programs that also are underway.

“It is really difficult if you’re responsible for two teams who are in-season,” said UMaine head athletic trainer Ryan Taylor, who has been with the program for 14 years.

There is a heightened sense of urgency as injured student-athletes attempt to get healthy and return to play as soon as possible. But there are only so many athletic trainers available.

“That’s part of it, the push to get them back as quickly and safely as possible,” Taylor said. “But you also have the issue of, how do you make sure you have a [training staff] member at each of your games, home and away?

For example, Orla Curran is the athletic trainer for UMaine’s field hockey and softball teams. Both are scheduled to be on the road the weekend of March 19-21.

UMaine has eight full-time trainers and a graduate assistant to take care of 17 teams. Husson has three full-time trainers and two part-timers for its 22 programs.

Because of the workload, Taylor has requested another full-time trainer who can work Friday through Monday and assist with overlapping team events.

“We usually work eight to 10 hours a day. This year, we have been working 10- to 12-hour days,” Taylor said.

Paul Culina, a 25-year UMaine employee who is the athletic trainer for the men’s hockey team, had to supervise testing and chart the results at 1 a.m. Sunday after the Black Bears returned from a trip to Connecticut.

“Paul has done an amazing job. The demands of doing their jobs during this pandemic has increased exponentially,” UMaine coach Red Gendron said. “The trainers are our heroes.”

COVID-19 protocols have also affected the athletic trainers’ work environments. UMaine’s training room has 10 treatment tables, but four had to be moved into another room to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Husson, which added an eighth training table, has divided them between three locations in Newman Gym, one more than normal.

Athletic trainers and athletes wear face coverings at all times and Taylor said the one-on-one sessions are limited to 15 minutes or less, if possible.

At Husson, because treatments are scheduled by appointment, Gmitter said athletic trainers have been able to spend more time with the athletes because it is more organized.

The athletic trainers, who have been vaccinated, are at the forefront of keeping tabs on those in the athletic department who become infected or are potentially exposed. Culina said one of the most challenging aspects of their job is staying abreast of all the changing information about the coronavirus.

“I have read a lot,” Gmitter said. “Because I now have a dual role also as an associate athletic director, I am involved in policy-making and implementation. We have weekly briefings with the NCAA and I have to read up on the new documents. So I’m excited when I get to spend time with the student-athletes.”

Culina also serves as the director of hockey operations for the UMaine men. He is responsible for booking the hotel rooms, scheduling the transportation and lining up the meals for road games.

Ordinarily, most of that is booked during the summer, but the pandemic has resulted in a constantly changing schedule. UMaine doesn’t find out its upcoming opponent until three or four days prior to the games.

With travel significantly curtailed worldwide, there have been plenty of available hotel rooms. For hotel accommodations, Culina makes sure the athletes room with the same people they live with on campus to reduce potential COVID-19 exposure.

“The most challenging thing has been the meals,” Culina said of the pre-packaged food, which student-athletes are required to eat either on the bus, in their hotel rooms or at the rink.

Culina said UMaine learned early on that two of the primary places the coronavirus could be spread was during team meals and in-person meetings. Both dynamics have been eliminated. Team meetings are conducted virtually.

Athletic trainers say they are in frequent contact with other trainers and medical personnel to stay on top of COVID-19 precautions.

“We’re a lot smarter now than we were three months ago,” Culina said of the learning curve.

Taylor said UMaine continues to work toward ensuring that student-athletes received needed treatment despite the added safety measures.

“We want the student-athletes to have as positive an experience as they can,” Taylor said.

Gmitter, Taylor and Culina praised the student-athletes for the way they have followed the safety protocols. Some even assist in sanitizing the training tables once they are done.

“It is exhausting and exhilarating. This is the first step toward normalcy for the kids,” Gmitter said. “It is important for their mental health.”

The dedication of the athletic trainers has not gone unnoticed.

“The hours required of them is unreal,” UMaine field hockey coach Josette Babineau said. “They are under a lot of stress. It’s very demanding. We know they have the best interests of the players in mind. The job they have done is very impressive.”

Through all the long work hours and the challenges of dealing with the pandemic, the athletic trainers continue to be fulfilled by their work.

“To see a student-athlete smiling because they are getting the opportunity to play a sport they love makes it all worth it,” Taylor said.