MLB : NEW YORK — Thirty baseball teams from 28 cities are seeking to play 60 games each in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that does not seem to have peaked in the US.
Very Plausible? Worth it anyway? Unconséquential?
It depends on who’s spoken, even between experts:
“Baseball games should work,” said Dr David Hamer, Professor of Global Health at the Public Health School at Boston University. “I think it is possible.”
“Some sports are higher risk versus lower risk,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Health Security Centre. “Baseball is a kind of midrange risk.”
“I’m very nervous about MLB’s plan,” said Dr. Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University. “It could be a disaster.”
Experts in public health have mixed feelings about the expectations baseball has of opening its July 23 season. There is hope due to the nature of the sport itself, which poses less pressure on the field than basketball , football or hockey. Then again, players and their families face a daunting task of staying healthy away from the stadium, especially with teams traveling to and from hard-hit regions like Florida and Texas.
Like the NBA and NHL, Major League baseball teams aren’t going to be sequestered into bubbles — they’re going to fly all over the nation.
Above all, however, there is uncertainty.
“I don’t think you can calculate exactly what the danger is going to be,” Adalja said.
For its pandemic-shortened 60-game regular season, MLB provided teams with a 113-page operations manual outlining procedures.
Players are put to the test every 48 hours. Masks and social distancing are also a must, even on the field. Backups are likely to watch games from stands rather than dugout. Any seeds made from sunflower. No splitting. No eye licking. Only the mascots will not be allowed to come near.
There are air travel regulations, bus transport, private vehicles, and hotels as well as general instructions to avoid contact with people outside the baseball community.
All of this can keep players safe? Can it keep MLB from straining resources in the communities they host? Even if, as some team owners have proposed, fans are permitted to attend games in September and October?
In short, what will work?
Two weeks into training workouts, there is cause to be hopeful.
According to data released by MLB on Friday, just 0.4 per cent of samples from players and coaches checked since June 27 have returned positively. This is just below the optimistic national average of about 9 per cent.
Testing delays have been observed, most notably around the weekend of July 4, and all but two of the 30 teams have had at least one positive person test.
Even, there is no denying the findings are promising.
“That’s a perfect starting point,” said Hamer, a Boston Medical Center infectious disease specialist who has consulted other pro-sport leagues.
If that will last it is too early to say.
Training is a vital component of the strategy made by MLB, but it is not foolproof. Put aside irritating delays that caused some teams to cancel practice — there are limitations even when screenings are done perfectly.
Players and on-field personnel have samples every 48 hours, and the findings will take between one and two days to process. This means players will take a test, take part in one or two games or workouts and do not find out until they have COVID-19 after that.
“There are so many times where you do not identify them fast enough,” Binney said.
So the risk of transmission must be kept low, even with uniformed coronavirus-positive players.
The nature of the sport ought to help.
“This virus is not transmitted through brief encounters,” said Adalja, who is also on the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory council. “It’s near contact for 10 to 15 minutes, and anything like people hanging out in the dugout is far more likely, epidemiologically, to spread the virus.”
The play field — even the box of the batter — should be fairly free, except perhaps for the catcher and the umpire plate. Adalja also said that baseball itself shouldn’t be a concern, as surface transmission is less common.
“There would be very low chance of forward transmission to teammates,” Hamer said.
Adalja and Hamer are optimistic about the policies of MLB, acknowledging that access can be limited to socially distant chartered planes, hotels and spacious fans-free ballparks.
“The possibility of airborne aerosol transmission is pretty much confined to the row you ‘re in, and maybe a row ahead and a row behind,” said Hamer.
“I think they will offer significant gain and lower the risk of leakage,” Adalja said of the off-field protocols in baseball. “But it won’t be ironclad.”
Binney is more worried. He thinks the bubble device like those used by NBA and NHL is worth the gamble, but he is worried the MLB ‘s procedures would be ineffective in virus-stricken areas such as Florida and Texas.
“That can all stop a few cases, and perhaps even a moderate number of cases,” he said of plans from MLB. “But if you get cases left and right from the community, I have some concerns about its ability to withstand that.”
Experts aren’t worried that traveling ballclubs will dramatically endanger communities. The traveling groups should be fairly small, so there shouldn’t be a lot of contact with people not associated with the league in any way because they will be using private transportation.
In reality, the reverse is definitely true — if the league struggles, it could be that in the hours that they’re away from teammates, players can’t stop the virus.
“I am more frankly concerned about the community’s exposures,” Hamer said. “Going out for dinner or drinks or something after the game, and what kind of exposures they might have there that raise the risk of being infected rather than the other way around.”
MLB is also trying to ensure that its roughly 10,000 weekly tests by using private facilities do not strain public resources. Adalja said there might be such a conflict in some regions, but he also thought MLB ‘s investment might encourage much-needed innovation and increased test production.
According to Binney, there’s one way in which MLB could pose a serious public risk — by opening its doors to fans.
New York Yankees owners, Texas Rangers and Houston Astros have said they intend to host crowds of minimal capacity by the season’s end. Once a vaccine is developed, Binney called the idea “absolutely unreasonable”
“When you start thinking about fans, you add a whole lot of risk, particularly to the safety of the public,” Binney said. “And the only benefit is money in the pocket of owners and stadium authorities.”
Adalja and Hamer think it was plausible, but tricky, to socially distance a stadium — bleachers, bathrooms, concession lines and so forth.
Nonetheless, the virus has to be curbed before all of this can be considered.
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