This is a variation on a theme we’ve mentioned here for a little while now (probably only about a week, but in this bizarro timeline that feels like about a year): in a post-COVID-19 peak world, testing is gonna be the thing.
That applies to a whole lot of areas of life – dramatically more important areas – but for our purposes this morning, I want to underscore the point as it relates to the return of sports.
Now that we see increasing commentary on this particular point coming from those directly connected to the sports world, and doing in a way that squares perfectly with what Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci has been saying about what the “recovery” looks like once we pass peak COVID-19 cases in the United States, I want to make it clear that this *is* the track to recovering sports. In other words, it gives us another way to view the hoped-for sports trajectory, even where we cannot get schedule updates directly from the leagues themselves.
First, from Dr. Fauci:
FAUCI: "When we turn a corner and it goes down, we have to have in place the ability to do the kind of containment that's pristine: you test like crazy, identify people, isolate them and do contact-tracing. You can't do that when you're in the middle of an explosive situation."
— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) April 3, 2020
In other words, once we see peak new cases and deaths from COVID-19 starting to trend downward in a very clear, protracted way (hopefully over the course of the next month), then you can start deploying next steps if the technology/production is there: rapid mass testing.
That’s the point at which we can start thinking about a realistic return of sports, as the NFL’s chief medical officer recent explained:
NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills says widespread testing would have to be available before reopening of the league could be contemplated (per @judybattista)https://t.co/dBHTNafjPn pic.twitter.com/qwkwOodLl5
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) April 2, 2020
We have to set aside the fan component for a while, because the return of fans to stadiums is going to involve even larger testing capabilities, as well as certain public health and political decisions that go far, far beyond the scope of what I’m talking about here.
For now, we’re just talking about players and essential personnel being able to stage games for TV.
As NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills explained, you can’t really have players coming back to perform until you’re able to test them frequently to ensure no one who is infected is coming into close contact with anyone else, *AND* you have to have plans and protocols in place so that one positive test doesn’t shut the whole league down (because the reality is that players and personnel will continue to test positive for this disease for a very long time to come).
Dr. Sills believes that the professional sports leagues will mostly move in lock-step with each other on how this all proceeds.
That means sports fans have a reason to track the ramp-up in production of rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 testing. The more widely and massively it becomes available, the more realistic it would be to allocate the necessary volume to sports organizations. (And, man, if an antibody test becomes widely available – the test that indicates whether a person has already had COVID-19 and recovered – that would be even more of a game-changer. But various news reports seem to suggest that’s still a ways off, especially if you’re talking about widespread usage.)
Meanwhile, the message coming from NBA punditry is the same:
ESPN's Brian Windhorst summing up the problem with predicting when the NBA (and every other sport) might return in one word 🏀 pic.twitter.com/rMEIPNsWKz
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) April 6, 2020
So what we’re looking at here as sports fans is a good news, bad news situation: the message is coalescing around something concrete, and that feels good, but we don’t actually know when that concrete thing will actually be able to happen. Once we’re past the peak (that remains the most important thing for all of us), and then when widespread, rapid testing is available, it becomes pretty easy to start laying out return scenarios for sports.
But in a world where carriers of COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, where the incubation period can be two weeks long, and where some people get hit by the disease so hard that they require hospitalization, there is no path to having players together for sports without the ability to test them constantly.