Sport

Doctors fear worst for MLB after Marlins coronavirus mayhem

PHILADELPHIA — Anthony Santella, a public health scientist and health services researcher specializing in infectious disease prevention and control, recalled his reaction upon hearing of organized sports’ plans to return to action.

“I was like, ‘We’re moving too fast,’” Dr. Santella, who teaches at Hofstra University, said in a telephone interview Monday. “…It was inevitable this was going to happen.”

“This” is the Miami Marlins coronavirus outbreak, with four players testing positive for coronavirus on Sunday and another seven players and two coaches on Monday. It quickly caused the postponement of two games — the Marlins against the Orioles at Marlins Park and the Yankees versus the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, where the Marlins played the Phillies on Sunday despite both teams knowing about the first batch of bad news.

Less than a week into the regular season, Major League Baseball finds itself at a crossroads.

Conversations with four medical experts on Monday produced overlapping sentiments: Strong skepticism that MLB can complete its mission of holding a 60-game regular season plus a month-long postseason; confusion over why the ruling authorities allowed the Marlins-Phillies game to occur on Sunday; and a steadfast belief that more such outbreaks will be coming as long as MLB attempts to keep this going.

“Baseball’s not like football or mixed martial arts where the guys are all over each other. It is a sort of socially distanced game out on the field,” said Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist at Rurgers, “But you have close quarters for the transportation, in the clubhouses, in the dugouts. Unfortunately, it takes only one person who may or not may have symptoms to create an ‘Oops!’ situation.”

The Miami Marlins have been hit hard by coronavirus.
The Miami Marlins have been hit hard by coronavirus.Getty Images

That the “Oops!” situation occurred with a team from Florida, where governor Ron DeSantis took immense pride in ending stay-at-home orders quickly and has seen such expediency produce skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers, hardly surprised the doctors.

“The players are not in an actual bubble,” said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious diseases expert at Northwell Health in New York. “They’re urged not to spend time outside of the stadium and the clubhouse, but the communities that surround where they are are really on fire from the infection.”

Similarly, Dr. Joseph Kim of ID Care noted that soccer players in the English Premier League have fared very well in avoiding outbreaks.

“Somehow, I think professional athletes are cut from a mold,” Kim wrote in a text message, “but the societies in which we live in may be different.”

MLB has no intention to pull its teams from hot spots like Florida, Texas or Arizona, which means it will continue to rely on its testing protocols, the urging for team members to socially distance and not socialize and immense attention to detail on travel.

“They could look toward more stringent rules to increase the strength of their bubbles,” Dr. Raymond suggested.

When teams are home, their players are allowed to do as they wish. In theory, the sport could house team members at the same hotel in their home cities just as they do on the road.

For sure, the doctors largely agreed, the sport must be proactive when it encounters a situation like Sunday’s here in The City of Brotherly Love.

“I would’ve said that’s not a good idea to continue to play (upon learning of the Marlins’ test results),” Dr. Raymond said. “…I think anywhere where you pick up the signal of the virus, you would probably want to put the brakes on pretty quickly.”

“I don’t want to second-guess, but the results speak for themselves,” Dr. Hirschwerk said. “In retrospect, it would’ve been better to take a timeout there and make sure that, even 24 hours later, other players still remain negative.”

“I don’t think there’s a safe way of doing these kinds of group team sports, I would say, at least for the rest of 2020 and most likely until there’s a vaccine,” Dr. Santella said. “I personally think you’re compromising people’s health and well-being for a short-term gain.

“…We’re planning for people to go back to work, to school, to sports, and the science needs time to catch up. We’re just not there yet. If I were advising Major League Baseball or any major group thinking about resuming activities, even with the research in place, I would simply tell them it’s just not the right time. I don’t think anyone will argue with putting someone’s health & life ahead of sports. I hope not.”

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