ESPN staff, ESPN: May 19, 2020
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S plan to start the season by July 4 relies on a dizzying array of moving parts, including the cooperation of 27 U.S. cities and a foreign country, the availability of more than 200,000 reliable coronavirus tests and a promise not to interfere with the nationwide fight to contain the pandemic.
ESPN examined the challenges facing MLB as it struggles to get back on the field. What emerges is like nothing that has been attempted in the history of American sport, less a baseball season than a military-style operation in which any number of variables could derail the plan, or, worse, contribute to the spread of the deadly disease.
WHEN MLB ABANDONED the idea to play the season under a bubble-like quarantine, it eased the restrictions that players would face but also created a riskier and more complicated scenario, according to health experts.
Even if teams are limited to regions — reducing travel, as the plan anticipates — players and other personnel will still travel between cities where people are living under different health orders and the virus may be spreading at different rates. Some states have reopened more than others and are projected to see a spike in cases, while others remain all but closed. Georgia, for example, partially ended its stay-at-home order on April 24, lifting restrictions on gyms, bowling alleys, hair salons and other businesses. In Cobb County, where the Braves play, new cases have been averaging about 50 a day. Some models and experts predict Georgia will soon see an increase in deaths because of the reopening.
“I wouldn’t want to put players in Atlanta’s ballpark,” said Beth Blauer, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civic Impact, which specializes in the use of data to advise governments and nonprofits on best practices. “You have to determine where to play based on that modeling. You can’t bring players into hot spots. … You’ll know between mid-May and June how devastating the decisions are and where the new hot spots are, potentially.”
Alex Fairly, CEO of Fairly Group, an Amarillo, Texas-based risk management firm whose clients include MLB and the NFL, served as chairman of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Back to Work Task Force on Sports and Entertainment, which included representatives of the Astros and Houston Texans. The challenge of figuring how sports will be staged safely “fried my brain,” said Fairly, adding that the process caused him to lose sleep. “There are 8,000 issues. No one knows exactly what to do because this has never happened. It’s a true black swan moment.”
Baseball’s plan designates about 100 essential employees per team — players and other on-field personnel and “a limited number of essential staff who come in close proximity to the players.” These “Tier 1” and “Tier 2” individuals will be tested multiple times per week, though the plan doesn’t specify how many times that would be. The plan says nothing about regular testing for 150 “Tier 3” individuals who are involved in “essential event services” but will be separated from the others. If those people come into contact with someone who has the virus, they will be tested.
Beyond their families, teammates, managers and other baseball personnel, players still will be exposed to a broad range of people — from hotel staff to security personnel; from bus drivers to flight attendants. All will be traveling in their own circles when not working; MLB’s plan does not say anything about testing those workers. That creates added potential for an outbreak, experts said.
“One of the things I try to explain to people is that whatever other people are doing who live anywhere near you, is gonna affect you,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit independent think tank. “Just because you’re not going to get a tattoo when you’re in Georgia when your team is playing the Braves, if the person serving you at the restaurant is married to a person who got a tattoo or married to the person who is the tattoo artist, then you as a customer at that restaurant or even picking up carryout has the potential for being contaminated by those people who are doing those things.”
Keeping stadiums and other areas sterile will be a perpetual ordeal. It will involve perimeter security to keep fans away, both at the ballpark and hotels, where autograph seekers often congregate.
IN INTERVIEWS WITH dozens of health care experts — doctors, epidemiologists, immunologists, policy specialists, government authorities — there was consensus that the main component to keeping baseball safe will be diagnostic testing. That’s the same issue that has bedeviled the national effort to combat the coronavirus.
The goal of testing is to weed out and isolate those who test positive and prevent outbreaks. The risks of insufficient testing are incalculable. Clusters of the coronavirus have erupted in group and travel environments. In early March, more than 100 people became infected at a Boston leadership conference of Biogen, turning the drug company into an unwitting spreader of the disease to other states.
With that nightmare scenario for baseball in mind, and players and staff traveling in and out of their communities, it’s imperative for MLB to ferret out positive cases before they spread, the experts said. MLB’s plan calls for testing players and personnel “multiple times” per week, but not daily, as some experts suggest.
“If you were doing daily testing, you’d have the ability to pick up very low numbers on the virus, pick it up as soon as somebody has the ability to transmit,” said Dr. Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Carolina.
Nolan described MLB’s testing plan as a B-minus — compared to an A-plus if you were testing daily — but said she believed it could be effective, particularly if players are diligent about social distancing and limit their exposure away from the ballpark.
Trout told ESPN: “I don’t see us playing without testing every day.”
Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale professor of health policy who has offered guidance to some sports leagues and teams, said he believes baseball’s plan should work. He noted that data suggest the prevalence of the virus among top-level athletes is likely to be extremely low, plus it will be easier to limit exposure without fans and other workers at the ballparks. Forman wouldn’t say which leagues he had spoken with.
Under MLB’s plan, only the person who tests positive will be quarantined. That policy conflicts with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which call for anyone who has had close contact with a confirmed case to quarantine for 14 days. “Our experts are advising us that we don’t need a 14-day quarantine [in such cases],” Manfred told CNN. The plan says baseball is following rules established by “health care institutions and governmental entities” but does not specify which entities.
Baseball is in a difficult position: Quarantining players who come in contact with infected individuals could force MLB to shut down entire teams.
Most health experts interviewed by ESPN said they believe MLB would be increasing the risk of an outbreak by not quarantining more extensively, if only for a few days.
“CDC guidelines are pretty clear that anybody who makes substantial contact with somebody who has the virus needs to be quarantined,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Health Institute, told ESPN. “I think baseball has to ask themselves on what basis are they going against the CDC guidelines. How confident are they gonna be that another player on another team didn’t have substantial contact with that player? It just strikes me as risky. My feeling is it just depends on how lucky you feel.”
Zuckerman, who runs the nonprofit think tank in D.C., said, “I could understand not quarantining for 14 days, because potentially you’d end up never being able to play. But not quarantining at all seems dangerous.” But Humble, the former Arizona health director, said MLB developed “a reasonable plan. The idea of the CDC guidance is to minimize risk, so if you find another way, that’s OK. Guidance shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. This may even be better, because of the frequency of testing, which is robust.”
After a positive test, clubs are required to work with local health officials to trace those who came in contact with the infected individual. Those people will receive an expedited test and, if negative, will be allowed to remain active — raising the possibility that people exposed to the virus could return to baseball within minutes. Baseball’s plan calls for additional testing of those individuals every day for one week, with results returned within 24 hours. “That’s time someone could be infecting other players, staff, their families,” one union source said.
Experts told ESPN that it can take several days for someone to test positive after contracting the virus.
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