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Fauci: Return-to-play will be ‘logistically difficult,’ may not work

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US-HEALTH-VIRUS-BRIEFING Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

In an interview with the New York Times published Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci says a return to play for the NBA —even next season— will present challenges that will be “logistically difficult” and require “really creative” solutions to keeping players and staff healthy. Key to any return during the continuing coronavirus crisis will be testing on a massive scale, said the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases.

Moreover, he suggested that some sports might have to skip the upcoming season. “It may not work,” he said of plans to reopen sports leagues.

Dr. Fauci, long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did not specifically mention the NBA in his comments, but did discuss the particular difficulties presented by playing basketball and hockey this winter. He told the Times James Wagner and Ken Belson that playing in front of empty stands and keeping players isolated could be one possibility.

“You’ve got to be really creative,” he explained. “That’s going to be more difficult and more problematic. But you know, there have been some suggestions that if you want to have a situation where players are going to have to come into contact, like basketball, there are certain things you can do.

“It may not work. I’m not saying this is the way to go, but you want to at least consider having players, if they’re going to play, play in front of a TV camera without people in the audience. And then test all the players and make sure they’re negative and keep them in a place where they don’t have contact with anybody on the outside who you don’t know whether they’re positive or negative.”

He called all of that “logistically difficult.”

In his latest public comments 11 days ago, Adam Silver said the NBA was “not seriously engaged yet” in discussions of playing games in a “bubble,” that is, a single site like Las Vegas or Walt Disney World outside Orlando.

So far, the NBA has only taken limited steps getting back on the court, such as instituting rules for players returning to training facilities for individual workouts. The process has been fraught with confusion.

In a memo released two days ago, the league told teams that training facilities can re-open on May 8 for individual workouts, but with severe restrictions. Players would be limited to having no more than four players working out at one time. Coaches would be prohibited from participating. Practices and scrimmages would not be permitted. Players would also continue to be prohibited from practicing at non-team sites, like fitness centers. The league also held out the possibility that it may push timing back “if developments warrant.”

For teams that play in cities or states with lockdowns beyond May 8 — like the Nets — the league has said it “will work with the team to identify alternatives,” not further described. Brooklyn along with Queens are currently the epicenter of the pandemic not just in the city and state, but in the country and quite possibly the world. At least 7,000 residents of the two boroughs —and likely more— have died from the virus. Antibodies testing conducted by New York State have shown an infection rate of more than 20 percent in the city.

Dr. Fauci, a Brooklyn native, said he’d like to see sports return, but said societal concerns must take priority.

“I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Dr. Fauci told the Times. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet.”

Key to getting sports back on track at least until a vaccine becomes available is greater access to testing, Dr. Fauci said. But he couldn’t put a number on what level of testing would be required or when the U.S. will even have enough testing.

“I can’t give you a date, but I know that tests are rapidly scaling up in numbers over the next several weeks and months,” he said. Most studies suggest the U.S. will have to test around five million people daily. The U.S. is currently testing roughly 400,000 a day.

Asked if it’s even fair to think about sports teams getting broad access to testing when the general public or other industries aren’t, Dr. Fauci said he hoped that by the time sports testing is needed, there will be enough to go around.

“I hope when we get to that point — when we’re going to try and get the sports figures tested— then we will have enough tests so that anybody who needs a test can get a test,” he replied.

The Nets of course were roundly criticized for getting tested on March 13, two days after the NBA shutdown, when there was little evidence of infection. However, when the results came back, four Nets including Kevin Durant had tested positive. All have since been medically cleared. KD said he remained asymptomatic.

Also, there’s no guarantee that even the “bubble” concept would be foolproof. What happens for example if a player tests positive. Would the league have to shut down?

“I don’t want to make this conversation sound like it’s going to be an easy thing,” Dr. Fauci emphasized. “We may not be able to pull this off. We’re going to have to see: Is it doable? Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, “We may have to go without this sport for this season.”