TAMPA, Fla. — Amid all the favorable COVID-19 data for Major League Baseball and the nearly-microscopic positivity rate at its spring training camps, Zack Britton reminded everyone Wednesday of two important details that remain true a year into the pandemic.
1. The most vigilant people can still get infected.
2. The virus has the potential to be seriously debilitating, even for professional athletes.
Britton is an example of both. The Yankees’ reliever, whose season is now delayed by elbow surgery to remove a bone chip, fought his own battle with COVID-19 back in January, losing 18 pounds in the process and struggling to regain his strength upon arriving in Tampa.
How did he get it? Britton’s best guess is at the Texas hospital where they welcomed their fourth child, and yes, he was totally blindsided by the diagnosis. Something else that surprised Britton? Just how hard the virus whacked him.
Britton is 33 and didn’t mention any pre-existing conditions. Hardly in the danger zone. But as MLB tiptoes its way through spring training — successfully, we might add — his sobering episode is what teams are up against, even as some plow ahead with grand attendance plans for Opening Day.
"COVID hit me pretty good," Britton said. "It just goes to show that everyone's going to react a little bit differently. For me, my body wasn't a big fan of getting it and it’s been taking me a while [to feel better]. The weight still hasn't come all the way back, so we're a few months out and I'm still fighting my way back from it."
A year’s worth of medical data and research has shown the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 do not require hospitalization and appear to fully recover. But there are many like Britton who get an unlucky bounce, and a smaller percentage who face life-threatening symptoms. To date, roughly 528,000 Americans have died from the virus, according to the New York Times.
Since the start of spring training, however, the numbers nationwide have been trending in the right direction, thanks in part to expanded vaccination programs that are increasing by the week. The players rejected MLB’s pitch to delay the opening of camps and the regular season by a month, and so far, they haven’t been burned by the decision. As of last week, only 25 positives were reported — 19 players, six staff members — out of a total 34,541 tests conducted this year (0.07%).
Because of that, COVID-19 doesn’t dominate baseball’s consciousness like it did all of last year, from the March shutdown to the final out of the World Series — absurdly followed by the on-field cameo from covid-positive Justin Turner during the Dodgers’ postgame celebration. But it would be a foolish mistake to dismiss the threat, as the virus still remains capable of shutting down the sport, or incapacitating any number of players, as Britton discovered recently.
"I did a lot of research on it when it started really spreading and I knew I didn't want it," Britton said. "We were doing what we needed to do. We were being smart about it and unfortunately I got it. It opened my eyes to maybe it being worse than I thought it would be if I got it."
Britton’s case should serve as a warning to his colleagues for the regular season, too. MLB has implemented a mandatory 10-day isolation period for players who test positive, but it could easily take longer for them to shake off the lingering symptoms. Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez was lost for the season last year when he developed myocarditis, or heart inflammation, after coming down with COVID-19. As for Britton, elbow aside, he’s still not feeling 100 percent yet.
"There was a period of time, right after I got it, that it was difficult to work out," Britton said. "I was losing some stamina and I was out of breath quite a bit. I was able to see a couple of doctors and they said everything was all right through all the testing, so I felt confident that I was going to be fine."
Gradually, a year after the pandemic struck, baseball is getting closer to normalcy again. Fans are back at spring training games, and stadiums will be filled to varying degrees on Opening Day, with the Rangers announcing Wednesday the go-ahead to have 100% capacity (40,518 fans) for two exhibition games and the home opener at Globe Life Field.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been the most aggressive (reckless?) on this front — declaring his state fully open last week and ending the mask mandate. But others are anxious to follow his lead, and probably soon will if there are no resulting outbreaks.
Fingers crossed that’s the case. But it’s also important to be cautious, and respect how dangerous the virus continues to be. Just listen to Britton.