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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Infectious disease expert says baseball's proposed coronavirus protocols may not be enough

A man with a mask walks past a

A man with a mask walks past a closed Citi Field on the scheduled date for Opening Day March 26, 2020. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

Like many, many people, I have a great deal to gain by the return of Major League Baseball in the not-too-distant future.

— It’s my job.

— I enjoy watching the sport.

— And did I mention it’s my job?

But even with all that at stake, it wouldn’t make much sense to beat the drums for playing baseball again solely based on what I want. Or my personal version of what is right, or safe, or possible.

So now that MLB and the Players Association have opened negotiations on restarting the season, with health being the primary concern, I consulted someone who has an idea of what the sport is up against during this COVID-19 outbreak: Dr. Bernard Camins, Medical Director for Infection Prevention for the Mount Sinai Health System.

If New York state is the epicenter of this worldwide pandemic — with more than 338,000 confirmed cases and more than 21,000 deaths — then Mount Sinai is among the hospitals clustered in the middle of that storm. Operating in the hottest of zones has provided a valuable education for health-care workers here, and also a battle-forged perspective on the diabolical nature of this coronavirus.

Given where the United States is at right now in combating the outbreak, it’s difficult to see baseball functioning safely in this environment, regardless of protocols designed to protect everyone involved with the games.

“Is it going to be successful if the rest of the community or the rest of the country is still experiencing continued outbreaks?” Camins said. “Then what will happen is you’re going to have baseball players who will come back positive. And even if they’re not going to get sick — hopefully — everybody who was exposed to that person will be quarantined, right?”

Not exactly. As Camins pointed out, it’s supposed to be for the CDC-recommended 14 days, which would effectively shut down a team and potentially wreck the season. But MLB intends to isolate positive cases and keep playing — a response much different from that of the Korean Baseball Organization, whose contingency plan calls for halting operations for three weeks.

There’s a reason why the KBO’s pandemic manual is 44 pages and MLB’s booklet is as many as 100. What they’re trying to do in the U.S. figures to be twice as difficult based on the lack of what Camins termed a “unified” response.

South Korea has an extensive program in place for widespread testing and contact tracing, which enables the society-at-large to live a somewhat normal life and the KBO to play in relative security.

Even if MLB puts together a solid plan on paper, it still has to overcome a ton of variables because of the country’s differing approach from state to state. Are there enough testing resources available in each municipality? And if any team personnel do get sick with COVID-19, are the nearby hospitals equipped to offer the best treatment?

Camins acknowledged the importance of restarting the economy — with baseball being a part of that — but it needs to be aligned with the greater public-health concerns.

“What we don’t want to do is sacrifice people getting sick,” Camins said. “It won’t go to zero. It will never go to zero until we have herd immunity, meaning either by a vaccine or a certain number of the population are infected and recover — and of course some have succumbed to the disease.

“Until that happens, we’ll continue to have mini-outbreaks, and what we don’t want is a large outbreak that will then create another surge like the one that really created so much trouble for our health-care system in New York. We were able to handle it. But it wasn’t easy. We don’t want that again.”

The number of cases in the U.S. remains on the rise, and as long as people keep getting infected, Camins believes that players will, too. Especially with games in high-population urban areas. As for proactive measures, temperature checks aren’t foolproof because in asymptomatic cases, those infected don’t show a fever. Even testing, which MLB wants to do multiple times weekly, can produce false negatives.

As for the argument that players are in a low-risk group, there are managers, coaches, and other game-operations staff who can’t say the same. Also, family members could be put in danger — and players, if they get the virus, don’t automatically bounce back, good as new.

“While the risk of dying is higher in older patients, young patients can become sick as well,” Camins said. “And even if they survive, there are now more and more reports of lifelong damage from the disease.”

MLB’s current proposal calls for the use of home ballparks, wherever possible, with teams playing within their divisions and the corresponding division in the other league. Limiting travel should help minimize risk, but clubs transporting up to 75 people from state to state could unwittingly ferry the virus to these locations through an unknown carrier.

“If they have someone who’s asymptomatic but is infected, they’ll end up bringing it from one city to another,” Camins said. “And if one particular city already controlled the outbreak, now you’re bringing in a potentially infected person.”

Everyone wants baseball back. It’s just about making sure that we don’t regret the day it does return.

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