On March 11th, 2020, the Utah Jazz visited the Oklahoma City Thunder in a bout between two of the most overlooked teams in the NBA. A late regular season matchup between them was just one of many in a lineup of games that night that were meant to be a footnote in the basketball record books. And true to form, the game was lost to time, but that was because the game would not be played at all. I still remember watching as team officials and referees huddled together on the court to discuss what to do in light of Jazz star Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. All the while, players and fans alike looked on in confusion. Broadcasters eventually called off the game, but not before forebodingly reminding everyone in the arena that “You are all safe.” However for myself and many others, that really was the beginning of the pandemic.
It can be a bit jarring to compare our attitudes towards COVID-19 then and now. Immediately in the wake of that game’s cancellation, we saw a grinding halt to not only the activities of major sports leagues like the NBA and NFL but also much of society as a whole. Such a level of caution made sense considering how new the virus was to us at the time. Without a vaccine, there was more willingness to commit to a full-on lockdown alongside other practices like masking and social distancing. Understandably, after nearly two years of such measures, much of the urgency we once had has waned. People are ready to rush back into normalcy despite the still ongoing Omicron wave, and the current actions of major American sports leagues only further highlight the risks of that sort of mindset.
Look no further than the NFL, which recently announced that it would no longer utilize weekly testing protocols for vaccinated, asymptomatic players and team personnel. In addition, asymptomatic players who test positive can return to play within a day so long as they register two back-to-back negative tests. The rationale for such a move has been described as a push towards “smarter, more strategic” testing. In many ways, it harkens back to an older adage that if we were to stop testing we would have fewer cases. Regardless of official statements, the motive for the move is clear: stop players from missing time so games can continue to be played. Looking forward, it would not be surprising if other leagues began to adopt a similar strategy. The NBA is currently dealing with over 100 and counting of its own players in COVID-19 protocols and a whole slate of postponed games. Moreover, rumors have begun circulating that certain teams have not been closely following the NBA’s current testing protocols.
Despite their motives, it can be fair to justify the NFL’s decision to reduce testing. Early data does seem to suggest that the Omicron variant is less harmful than what we had seen with previous waves of the virus. Furthermore, these are athletes representing the very physical peak of humanity. What’s a less dangerous variant of the virus going to do to them, especially if they are already vaccinated? At some point things have to return to normal, so why not let the players play?
Well, there is a dangerous precedent that is being communicated through the actions of organizations such as the NFL: the idea that we truly are trending towards normal. More and more people are viewing COVID-19 with the mindset that we must simply vaccinate and move on because nothing will stop the next variant from popping up. However, while the United States does have the benefit of booster shots, we must remember that the rest of the world is still dealing with an ongoing pandemic without the same access to vaccines.
The problem with all of this is that, even if the United States itself is equipped to deal with any new variants, it’s still way too soon for us to begin living life as normal again. For one, we do not actually know if Omicron is less severe than Delta, as new evidence is surfacing each day that seems to contradict the initial South Africa study. Moreover, it is important to recognize that Omicron is still considerably more transmissible than other variants of COVID-19, even among those who are already vaccinated. Considering the over 18,000 new cases in a single weekend in Florida alone, as well as the fact that Omicron currently makes up 73% of United States Covid-19 cases, a surge in cases could lead to hospitals once again operating at overcapacity.
Fans of the game, even those vaccinated, may look to the sports leagues that entertain them as proof that things are trending in the right direction. It may seem like a post-COVID era is shortly in sight, if not already here, and perhaps Omicron will actually soon prove to be less-severe compared to past waves of COVID. But it could also spell yet another tumultuous, deadly winter for us and our hospitals. Given that risk, the idea that asymptomatic people—and asymptomatic athletes—can return to normal activities is a hasty move. Especially when there is so much that we still do not know about Omicron, perhaps some of the caution from that lost Jazz-Thunder game is still warranted.