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SportsColumnistsAndrew Gross

Several medical authorities sound alarm on NHL returning to play

Dallas Stars  interim head coach Rick

 Dallas Stars  interim head coach Rick Bowness watches practice in Frisco, Texas. The state is one of the COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S.  Credit: AP/JEFF TOATES

Sports rely on statistics to inform decisions.

That’s especially true during a pandemic.

COVID-19 test results will tell leagues whether they can continue with their plans to play games. So Monday’s release of the NHL’s fourth weekly report on COVID-19 tests administered to players will be very significant, as it marks the first full accounting of all the players participating in the planned resumption of games at the quarantined arena/hotel bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

The teams will travel to the hub cities on July 26 after formal training camps opened this past Monday.

The first three weekly reports were based on tests administered during the voluntary small-group workouts that began at the team facilities on June 8.

This week’s results will come with COVID-19 cases rising dramatically across much of the United States, including Florida, Arizona, Texas and Nevada, all states currently hosting NHL training camps.

A report by Canadian-based TSN released on Thursday quoted seven infectious disease experts, all opposed to the NHL’s decision to open training camps in coronavirus hotspots.

Dr. John Swartzberg told TSN, “It’s a horrific decision.”

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti went further, telling TSN that the NHL should not be holding training camps anywhere in the U.S.

“Community transmission is an important metric for COVID and, right now in the U.S., it’s nuclear,” Chakrabarti told TSN. “It’s gargantuan, especially in Florida.”

That’s where the Lightning and the Panthers, who will face the Islanders in a best-of-five qualifying series, are based.

“Having training camps in the U.S. is a terrible, non-evidence-based decision,” Chakrabarti said. “I’m sure players will be wearing masks and washing hands, but it’s like having a small umbrella outside. In the light rain, it works well and you’re OK. But if you start getting winds and torrential rains, that umbrella isn’t going to do anything for you.

“You want to be charitable and maybe the NHL is so far into this that it’s just hard for them to pull back,” Chakrabarti added. “But you look at this and say, ‘What are you thinking?’ ”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the return-to-play plan can withstand limited coronavirus cases but obviously not a major outbreak, though neither he nor deputy commissioner Bill Daly have specified what that threshold would be.

Daly said the NHL did not push any of its teams to move their training camps. “We believe the risk is limited, even in hotbed areas,” he said.

During the voluntary small-group workouts at team facilities — dubbed Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan — the league administered 4,934 COVID-19 tests to more than 600 players, with 30 confirmed positive results. That’s a positive rate of about 5.0%.

In addition, the NHL reported 13 players tested positive outside of Phase 2 protocols.

There now are about 800 players participating in Phase 3, the formal training camps.

There are a myriad of health and safety protocols dictating what happens at the team facilities and how the players can and cannot travel to the rinks each day. The players undergo temperature and symptom screening daily, both at home and at the team facility. Some teams, such as the Islanders, are testing their players daily.

But until the teams can report to their hub city bubbles, the players are living in their communities, with all of the associated potential exposure risks of not living in quarantine. TSN reported the NHL has offered to arrange grocery shopping and delivery for the players during Phase 3 to limit contact as much as possible.

Each of the 24 teams is allowed to bring a maximum of 52 people — players, coaches, management, doctors, trainers, equipment staff — into their hub city bubble.

“I definitely feel safe,” Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech said. “I think, if anything, there’s a lot of protocols in place. But it’s all to make the environment safe for us. I think everyone understands that and everyone’s fully willing to comply with all the protocols and do everything we can to stay safe and healthy.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based infectious disease specialist who is advising the NHL Players’ Association, did tell TSN he believes the risk to players remains low as long as they practice social distancing, wash their hands and wear a mask.

But Dr. Prabhat Jha, a Toronto-based epidemiologist, told TSN that the surging numbers in the U.S., particularly the South, makes it “almost impossible” to prevent players from becoming infected and transporting the disease to Canada.

Obviously, enough NHL personnel — league officials, management, coaches and players — believe differently.

Monday’s report will be a significant step in seeing which tightly-held belief is right.  

New York Sports