Sports aren’t taking coronavirus resources from the public, unless they are

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We have been assured, again and again, that there are enough coronavirus tests available that athletes being continually tested throughout the return of sports won’t be taking away tests from the public. This is a point I have a hard time believing on its face, because no one has bothered to show the math on that yet, but I’m willing to acknowledge that it might be the truth. The thing is, though, that this line, that there are enough tests to go around and resources aren’t being taken away from the public in order to test and retest and retest athletes yet again, is still misleading. Because even if there are enough tests, it’s clear there aren’t enough or robust enough labs to analyze all of the tests: it doesn’t matter if you have enough tests if you lack the machines or technicians to analyze them all in a timely fashion.

Priority is being given to athletes over regular people, and that is where the resource issue is.

This isn’t just a cynical hypothetical. It’s happening out there, as Tom Haberstroh pointed out in regards to both the NBA and MLS, leagues which are using BioReference for next-day test results in their Florida returns:

BioReference is experiencing serious delays with the general public. As of Thursday morning, patients attempting to access test results on the BioReference website would be met with an alert that reads: “If you are looking for your COVID-19 PCR (swab) results please note that these may not be available in the patient portal for up to 5-7 days after collection. As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for your patience during this unprecedented time.”

The local stories in Orlando involving BioReference are alarming. Last week, Central Florida’s CBS affiliate WKMG reported that a 74-year-old cancer survivor, along with several senior citizens at a nursing home, waited over a week for their results after being tested at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), one of the busiest testing sites in the state of Florida. The OCCC’s testing provider: BioReference.

This is what makes it difficult to believe that MLB isn’t taking resources away from the public with their own testing, especially as they add a second lab to the mix when one didn’t suffice, and have teams using other labs beyond those for additional tests to see if players can return to the field or not. And since so much of this is hidden from the public, it also seems as if we aren’t going to find answers to the impact this is having unless journalists dive in headfirst to find them. Haberstroh has already done so, and Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri wrote about MLB’s plan, and how it might be pulling resources from the public despite the protestations otherwise:

It’s true that relying on a single private lab means that MLB isn’t taking preexisting tests that would otherwise be used for the general public. And a system that runs on saliva samples rather than nasal swabs addresses the issue of resources that can easily be strained by public demand. But COVID-19 tests do all rely on the same few supply chains—every lab, private or public, operates within the same broader ecosystem when it comes to the required reagents.

“Any amount of testing draws from the pool of available reagents, regardless of whether it’s performed at a private lab, an academic medical center, or a commercial reference laboratory,” says Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, medical director of the clinical virology lab at Stanford. “There’s a relatively limited number of suppliers, and there have been supply chain issues throughout the course of this pandemic, not just confined to the public sector versus private sector.”

This has been the issue from the start. Back in March, the NBA suspended its season when Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, but not until they had tested two entire teams and staff to make sure no one else who worked for the league in the arena that night was positive as well. That round of testing used up 60 percent of Oklahoma’s daily allotment of tests (capacity for testing was much lower back in March). The NBA claimed it was fine that they waltzed in and used up that much of the testing, because they had been working with health officials for months in case the pandemic came to America and impacted the NBA. My response at the time was:

“How does an NBA player deserve to be tested more than, say, a Wal-Mart employee from Oklahoma, who can’t use their limited paid sick time when they miss work unless they have a doctor’s diagnosis? That’s Wal-Mart’s policy, by the way, not a manufactured scenario. Who had to show up to work the next day while sick, infected with coronavirus, interacting with hundreds and hundreds of strangers that they then passed their infection on to, because there were no tests left available after the NBA used their power and influence to swipe the majority of a days’ ration? Because if they aren’t paid for their missed work, they can’t afford groceries, or rent, or to treat the symptoms they’re experiencing but can’t have tested yet?

I stand by that today. NBA players, obviously, also deserve to be tested to find out if they have the coronavirus, but creating a situation where thousands of additional tests of athletes need to be performed on a daily or near-daily basis, in order to see if it’s still safe to play sports, at a time when folks who do not play sports are having to wait so long for test results that it renders the actual results nearly pointless by the time they learn if they are testing positive or negative? Why are we doing this? How is this not a blatant misuse of limited resources that are needed in order to successfully manage our way through a pandemic?

From the start, the responses of leagues to any ethical or math-based question having to do with testing has been, “It’s fine, this will all work out, we wouldn’t do it if it were going to adversely impact the public.” And yet, here we are, with that very thing happening, and all we’re seeing is denials as leagues push through on their plans to start or resume their seasons. None of this has to be happening, but it is. It could all stop, but it isn’t. And that’s what makes it all that much more infuriating.

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