Rapid, frequent tests at heart of MLB health plan
By the end of last week, Major League Baseball planned to present to the union and all 30 clubs more than 80 pages of medical protocols that are expected to detail the league’s plans for routine rapid-result COVID-19 testing of players and essential game-day employees. Those tests could be administered daily if circumstances warrant. Testing would be conducted by a centralized Utah-based lab used frequently by MLB, in part to avoid detracting from medical services that may be needed for the general public.
The health and safety components of MLB’s return-to-play plan are the critical issues being addressed first with the union — before contentious player compensation issues are tackled — as both sides look to forge an agreement to start a historic 82-game regular season in early July, which would at least initially begin in spectator-less ballparks. An MLB official with direct knowledge of the proposal spoke to Sports Business Journal about medical protocol specifics on condition of anonymity because they are not finalized.
For frequent testing of asymptomatic individuals, samples will be sent to the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah, which is MLB’s minor league drug testing laboratory that has now been converted to a COVID-19 testing lab. The Utah lab will do the testing because the infrastructure of collectors and how to ship samples is already in place. The turnaround time will be 24 hours. Dr. Daniel Eichner, the president at SMRTL, also helped spearhead the recent antibody study in which thousands of MLB employees submitted to antibody tests.
For symptomatic individuals, MLB would administer a different procedure — a point-of-care test conducted in a laboratory in the individual’s market that yields an immediate result. The league is now identifying places in each market that could offer that test.
MLB also envisions making testing available to the families of players and staffs. It also expects to be able to provide excess inventory of tests to health care providers for the general public.
Section 2 of MLB’s health and safety proposal focuses on protocols that encompass quarantining measures in the event of a positive test, and contact tracing procedures so that the sport would not have to shut down if a player or even multiple players test positive during the season. MLB would enlist a combination of club resources and central health resources, including medical advisers, to assist with contact tracing.
MLB is hoping that most of the 30 teams can begin play in their home markets. The expectation is for routine testing, perhaps occurring daily for players if needed, such as in the days following a return from a road trip where a team will have stayed in a hotel. Rapid-result testing not only yields a result faster, but also is expected to entail saliva-based tests rather than more invasive ones like a nasal swab test.
“I can virtually guarantee you there will be a positive test,” said an executive with a National League team familiar with the leaguewide discussions. “You’ve got to be prepared with protocols agreed to, and that everyone is comfortable with, so you can quarantine and continue to play.”
MLB would centrally administer the test, working through head athletic trainers and doctors with the 30 teams. MLB’s lead medical consultant on COVID-19 matters is Dr. Ali S. Khan, who spent nearly two decades at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before becoming the dean of the college of public health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
With the possibility of an abbreviated spring training 2.0 looming next month, several teams told SBJ that they already are taking steps and engaging in internal discussions about preparation, all in advance of what they expect to be detailed league-driven guidance about operating plans and protocols in the coming weeks.
While players will not be wearing masks on the field during action, MLB is discussing requiring masks in the dugout and requiring masks of all non-players at all times.
MLB — rather than individual teams — is expected to take the lead in dictating how many employees a team is allowed to have inside a fanless ballpark for games. They will include only essential staff, which will then be partitioned into different tier designations based on whether their responsibilities require an intersection with players and whether they need access to the field, clubhouse or players.
Work-from-home policies, established by state and local governments, vary greatly. A team executive in a market that has not experienced a large swath of cases said a core group of employees, including engineers and security, continue to work from the ballpark. With only a bare minimum number of essential employees allowed in on game days, he expects most of the club’s front office would continue to work remotely through the end of the season.
Some teams already are planning how to incorporate medical protocols when and if small groups of fans are permitted back in ballparks during the 2020 season.
Among the ideas in discussion: Staggering times for fans to enter the gates to avoid bottlenecking at turnstiles; scanning fans’ temperatures on their way into venues with thermal imagery; minimizing the need to touch areas of the ballpark; and operating cashless concessions.
Another possibility is designating “COVID-19 antibody positive” sections for fans who could, in theory, sit in closer proximity to other fans who also possess antibodies, which indicates that an individual has already recovered from the virus. However, the medical community remains uncertain about what percentage of those with antibodies possess immunity from the virus and for how long.
“When baseball fans eventually return, not only will they need to be kept safe, but they will need to be comfortable in returning,” one team executive said. “Through creativity and innovation, we can find ways to do it well. It is going to be a sea change.”