TODAY'S PAPER
Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' COVID-19 outbreak could be much worse if not for vaccinations

Gleyber Torres #25 of the Yankees reacts after

Gleyber Torres #25 of the Yankees reacts after striking out in the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, May 8, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Get vaccinated.

That should be the takeaway from this Yankees outbreak, which expanded Thursday to include Gleyber Torres, bringing the total of "breakthrough positives" — those who contracted COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated — up to eight this week.

Maybe that sounds counterintuitive. As in, "What’s the point if I’m just going to get infected anyway?" or "Obviously the vaccines don’t work if they couldn’t prevent the Yankees from coming down with the virus."

But here’s the crucial point to consider here. Yes, all eight of these members of the Yankees traveling party received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the one with a significantly-lower protective value (around 66% to 72%) than Pfizer (95) and Moderna (94.5). Evidently, the virus took advantage of that greater window, and general manager Brian Cashman acknowledged this strain was a more "aggressive" variant (he didn’t specify which).

The important number, however, is 100% — an efficacy rate that all three of those vaccines have showed in trials at preventing hospitalization and death. And to this point, the Yankees were happy to say Thursday that all eight are now asymptomatic for COVID-19. Third-base coach Phil Nevin, the first to test positive Monday, had displayed some early signs of illness, but has since recovered without any worsening problems.

That’s the lesson, which Cashman made sure to promote repeatedly during Thursday’s Zoom call with reporters. The coaches and staff members are still quarantined, along with Torres — the lone player — but this so far has been limited to merely a baseball inconvenience for the Yankees. The wrinkle with Torres is that he already had the coronavirus in December, later was vaccinated, and still wound up testing positive this week.

Torres surely isn’t unique in that regard. This is a pandemic after all. But he’s the most high-profile person in a high-profile line of work to experience such a bizarre infection twist as we move into the 15th month of battling COVID-19 here in the United States. For the Yankees, it’s been a head-spinning series of events. And as they keep trying to contain this outbreak, the relative good health of those affected is encouraging. How can anyone truly be surprised by what happens going forward after the past year-plus?

"When you read the fine print, they tell you you still could get COVID and the vaccine is to protect you from the symptoms," Cashman said. "It’s not full protection. You know the percentages. But the one thing I take from this, I believe the vaccine is working. We can take great comfort thankfully that all who were vaccinated with the J&J . . . we believe it’s created a nice protection."

Cashman couldn’t say why the infected personnel chose the J&J vaccine rather than the two-dose options like Moderna and Pfizer — as it seems that many Yankees did — other than suggesting their younger age (and therefore less risk for serious illness) steered them in that direction. Obviously one shot is more appealing than two. That’s true for the general population, but especially for people in baseball, a sport that plays every day.

Just getting the one shot eliminates the worry about scheduling a second, which can get difficult when traveling — or the concern over another round of side effects that could knock a player from the lineup. That’s little consolation for Torres and the others now. MLB’s protocols state that anyone who tests positive must be kept away from the team for a minimum of 10 days, and before Thursday night’s series finale at the Trop, Cashman said all eight are still coming up positive.

"We are trying to be as open and transparent as we legally can because I know this is an understandably newsworthy event," Cashman said. "I know that maybe we are a case study to some degree of curiosity for people who don’t know that despite being vaccinated, you are really still potentially exposed. And then we can educate people, well, your exposure is limited significantly — not to getting the virus, but how the virus affects you."

Cashman revealed that he received the Pfizer vaccine, but only because at the age of 53, the two-dose option was recommended to him by the team’s medical staff. It was an interesting coincidence that earlier Thursday the CDC had lifted all mask restrictions and social-distancing precautions for fully vaccinated individuals only to have one of the nation’s preeminent sports franchises in the midst of a new outbreak, shortly after having their own protocols loosened after reaching the 85% vaccination threshold.

About an hour before Thursday’s first pitch, Cashman reported no new positives for the Yankees, which provided a slight glimmer of optimism. Cashman theorized that the coaches and staff members may have caught the virus in the close confines of their room off the clubhouse during Saturday’s lengthy rain delay. He had no idea how Torres was connected to the outbreak.

That’s the scary part. And what the vaccines are for.

New York Sports