NBA

Epidemiologist has faith in NBA Orlando bubble, but should league return?

The NBA has about three months to hold its breath.

To hope that the bubble doesn’t burst.

To pray that the 2019-’20 season concludes in a safe manner, without any hospitalizations and devoid of any uncontrolled outbreaks.

The league has implemented exhaustive testing procedures for its Disney campus in Orlando, and yet NBA Commissioner Adam Silver concedes it’s “not impermeable.”

He even allowed that his concern is increasing, owing to the 10,000 cases Florida just saw in one day.

“We’re talking about degrees of risk in all these things, and I think sometimes that gets lost,” said Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health. “It’s not like there’s a black-and-white line between you’re either over 65 and you’re at risk or you’re under 65 and you’re not.”

Miller reviewed the NBA’s health-and-safety protocols and was impressed with its testing procedures. She was confident in the league’s ability to catch a positive test early before it steamrolled into something more devastating.

“It would be difficult to have a significant outbreak because they’re going to be testing so frequently and so widely that I think they’ll identify anyone who’s infected fairly quickly,” she said. “… But I still think you’re depending on people following those guidelines, especially the pre-quarantine requirements.”

The Nuggets, at least publicly, have been among the most impacted franchises in terms of positive coronavirus cases. Superstar Nikola Jokic tested positive in Serbia, as did at least three members of the team’s traveling party since last weekend. Head coach Michael Malone, whose antibody test revealed he had had the virus months after he was feeling symptoms, suggested maybe the only benefit was that members of his team were testing positive before traveling to Orlando.

On Thursday, the NBA and NBPA announced that of the 351 players tested since June 23, when mandatory testing began, 25 players (7%) have tested positive. That number was significantly lower for staffers, where only 10 were positive out of 884 tested from June 23-29.

“If you’re in the bubble and you know you have seven percent of people who are PCR positive, that seems concerning,” Miller said. “If it’s pre-bubble, and you’ve allowed the appropriate amount of time for isolation of those people then I think that’s different.”

The NBA has, deliberately, not stated what it would take to call off the restart.

“This level of testing and oversight is just so many levels more than any other community that I find it hard to imagine that there will be uncontrolled transmission because they’ll be able to identify it so early,” Miller said, while acknowledging some level of risk associated with just playing basketball. “The concerning thing would be if there was identified person-to-person transmission within the bubble, and they demonstrate that all these safeguards are really not preventing that then I think they’ll have to rethink it.”

On a recent Zoom call with reporters, Malone turned introspective and revealed that at different times he didn’t know whether the NBA should be considering a return.

“Do I think it’s worth it? I’ll be honest, in the three months since the season was suspended, depending on the day, the week, the month, I probably would have a different answer,” he said.

Ultimately, assuming a safe environment and the conversation around racial justice doesn’t subside, Malone believes returning is the right decision.

Miller understood the need for something “uplifting” and recognized the value in bringing back basketball. But she also had reservations about resource allocation. The NBA has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to aid its testing and has said its plan wouldn’t hurt the availability of testing for first responders.

“The magnitude of this issue and the needs are so great that it’s a bit of a struggle to think about for instance all these testing resources going to this relatively small group of people,” she said. “I hope that that isn’t impacting the availability of testing elsewhere. And I don’t know that it is. It’s just worth thinking about.”

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