Arthur L. Caplan is the founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City and Lee H. Igel is a clinical professor in the NYU Tisch Institute for Global Sport.
The omicron Covid-19 variant is spreading across professional sports faster than at any time since the start of the pandemic. Scores of positive cases within teams are leading leagues to postpone games and adjust health and safety measures. The shut down of sports in March 2020 jarred many people into realizing the new coronavirus was something more than a seasonal bug. Now, with infection rates surging again, what guidance could pro sports provide to the general population?
Scanning the big-time sports playing grounds, it isn’t hard to see that omicron is quickly changing the game. Large numbers of players are being sidelined by positive test results that send them into Covid safety protocols. Handfuls of games are being postponed because of depleted rosters and concerns over viral spread. Stadiums and facilities are limiting access due to sharp rises in indoor exposure between teammates, team personnel, and the broader community.
Until now, major leagues in the United States have been able to play their seasons mostly uninterrupted. Part of that owes to 95% or more of players in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Women’s National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, and National Women’s Soccer League reportedly having been vaccinated. Players who choose to not be vaccinated, including prominent quarterbacks who say they are “immunized” by developing natural antibodies after recovering from Covid, are supposed to adhere to more frequent masking and testing protocols. The leagues have also mandated that team coaches, staffs, and personnel executives be fully vaccinated.
But the highly-contagious omicron strain seems to be getting the better of those game plans. The NHL, currently in the middle of its regular season, is pausing all activities across the league until at least Sunday because of Covid outbreaks among teams. The NFL is postponing games, as tens of players, including stars and starters, on different teams test positive each day.
The NBA has postponed a couple of games lately, but seen several big-name players placed into the league’s Covid protocol. The English Premier League, one of the most followed sports competitions in the world, had to postpone more than half of its 10 matches scheduled this past weekend because of Covid-related issues. Executives were considering a “firebreak” shutdown of the league, but instead decided to push enhanced safety measures for the time being.
Last year, the NBA suddenly suspended its season after one player on one team tested positive. Major leagues in the U.S. and Europe followed suit, one after the other, within hours. If the spread of a virus was knocking out sports, what was it going to mean for the rest of society? And what lessons could be drawn from the way that sports was responding to the Covid crisis?
Since then, there has been a great deal of learning about the virus, its behavior, and how to manage it. A chunk of that knowledge owes to scientists studying data generated by activities of sports leagues, teams, and players throughout the pandemic. As omicron takes its course and organizations across pro sports are once again resorting to intense Covid prevention procedures, they can offer guidance to help keep everyone safe and keep illness at bay.
The first cases of the omicron variant were announced about a month ago. It is still …….