The health of professional athletes has always been important, even though much of it has taken place out of the headlines and stayed in the locker rooms. Even infection control was important pre-pandemic, especially with the isolated cases of drug-resistant MRSA or other small outbreaks. But nothing has brought more attention to the health and safety of professional athletes than COVID-19. With millions of fans waiting desperately to watch their favorite teams - or, honestly, ANY teams - compete again, there has been intense work to prepare for a safe return to football, baseball, basketball, and many other professional sports. In today's post, we'll look at how these associations are putting into place the four most important aspects of outbreak prevention: Testing, social distancing, contact tracing, and surface safety.
All the major professional sports leagues have policies that outline their testing procedures. Major League Baseball (MLB), which is currently playing an abbreviated season without spectators, is using a combination of polymerized chain reaction (PCR) saliva testing, to see who is currently infected, along with blood antibody testing, to see who has already been infected. The National Football League (NFL), whose training camp begins next week, announced that players will be tested every day of the first two weeks of training, with tests going to a national lab to avoid putting a strain on local testing. The National Basketball Association (NBA), which is currently restarting the 2019-2020 season in Orlando, will use shallow nasal swabs, PCR, and blood antibody testing regularly throughout all phases of the short season. They are also testing out a new technology, the Oura Smart Ring, which may be able to detect early symptoms such as fever and elevated heart rate.
Just how do athletes stay 6 feet apart? Well, when it comes to social distancing and professional sports, it's all about limiting the number of people who come into contact with each other, not just keeping distance on the field or court. After the initial testing and isolation, all the professional sports plans involve ways to keep players from coming into contact with untested individuals as they train, rest, and compete. The NFL is limiting buses to 50% capacity and assigning only one player per room at hotels. They also restrict use of public transportation or use of public gyms and pools. The NBA, currently in a "bubble" at a resort in Orlando, has limits to how many individuals can travel with the team, and limits players to eating only at the approved resorts. Social distancing at the MLB includes no high fives, fist bumps or ride sharing. Additionally, access to stadium sections and player areas will be restricted by tiers. As for in-game social distancing, MLB players can get ejected from the game for getting within 6 ft of another player or umpire... when arguing.
Even with the strict testing and social distancing measures in place, there still needs to be a plan in place for what to do if someone tests positive for COVID-19. The NBA protocols describe use of video to assist with contact tracing, allowing the team to identify who may have come into contact with anyone else who tested positive. In addition, the NBA and the NFL will be using Kinexon proximity recording devices, a technology that allows quicker contact tracing by providing data about who was near whom but also alerts users when they are too close to someone else. If someone tests positive (and many have), they will have to quarantine for 14 days, with specific requirements for returning to play ranging from 2 negative tests to approval from a medical panel.
Professional team protocols also include regulations that cover surfaces, with particular attention to equipment and room cleaning regimens. Some interesting protocols have been released by MLB, which has regulations about players licking their fingers to get a better grip on the ball - they have to use a wet rag. They also can't spit tobacco or sunflower seeds anymore, and have to use a towel when leaning on the dugout railing. The NBA has rules for its players residing in the bubble; playing cards can only be used for one game, they can't share golf equipment (a popular pastime for players), and they even specify special disinfection rules for the basketballs themselves. Keeping the surfaces around athletes and their staff free from contamination is critical to their remaining healthy, and the pro sports protocols take this into consideration.
We will have to see how effective these plans are at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus amongst athletes and staff. The next step is figuring out how to get spectators back at live games. Without a massively scaled-up national testing and contact tracing program, it seems like this may be a distant reality. Until then, we will have to be satisfied with cheering from our couches (but not sports bars!) We hope that pro sports organization will learn enough about infection control during this pandemic to protect their communities even after the pandemic is over.