Doctors on the return of sports: 'Fans may not be in stadiums until well into 2021'

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Realistically, when do you think sports will return? Dr Nate Favi.....ancing.”

Realistically, when do you think sports will return?

Dr Nate Favini, medical lead at Forward healthcare services: “It all comes down to testing. If you have rapid and highly accurate tests, and you have the ability to do enough of them, so you can test people often and quickly, that’s basically the threshold you need to meet to reopen sports. Imagine if you could test every NBA player every day – and exclude anyone who tests positive – and let players play in empty stadiums, you could restart today. But you have to have testing available at that scale. It will probably be eight months until we have that.”

Dr Douglas J Wiebe, professor of epidemiology, Perelman School of Medicine: “That’s a tough one. Not yet. Having testing available will make us all feel better. If [a player tests positive for Covid-19] we clearly have to isolate them and provide them medical care. The other kind of testing will be testing for antibodies, to identify [whether] an athlete been infected in the past. And if they have the antibody that should be a marker that they are now able to fight off new instances of the virus.”

Dr Geoff M Dreher, Johns Hopkins University, expert in sports medicine: “It’s difficult to put a timetable on a return. We want to make sure players and staff are safe and make sure if they do get sick or otherwise injured, that there are pathways for safe care without wasting any resources for the general population. When those measures are met, sports should make their comeback.”

Dr Will Bulsiewicz, author of Fiber Fueled: “It depends. I could see non-contact sports like golf come back very quickly. It becomes a lot more difficult for contact sports. Basketball is designed for the infection, and NFL is the same, they’re climbing all over each other. I would love to see football this fall, what I worry about is not so much if you can test before gameday but that these players have to practice with each other all week. It will be very hard to test players every single day before practice. That’s what makes it hard for football.”

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Will the Tokyo Olympics be safe to stage next July?

Favini: “If we have a wide-scale vaccine rollout strategy by next summer, I think it’s possible to get to enough immunity to hold the Olympics. Looking at how things are unfolding, by next summer we will still be in an environment where even though we may open day-to-day society, we still may not be in a place to open a big global event for people from all over the world to be in one space. I think we may end up having the Olympics postponed again.”

Wiebe: “Based on where we are now, I think it’s going to be quite some time before we’re in a position to be confident about interacting together in sporting venues, including the Olympics. We aren’t even out of the woods yet on what may be the first wave of Covid infections in the US. People can plan for the future, but I’m not confident the Olympics can happen [in 2021]. I think it will be very hard to have a large sporting event and have fans be a part of it in person”.

Dreher: “[Holding the Olympics] in July 2021, may be difficult, especially with vaccine developments taking from 12 to 18 months or longer. So to plan for hundreds of thousands of people to converge on a few locations at the Games will be difficult in that timeframe.”

Bulsiewicz: “I would call it [the Olympics] 50-50. The Olympics are such an international event: how do you control people flying in from around the world? I can’t imagine them having an Olympics without a crowd. I can see where they can stage the competition without crowds, but then you’re undercutting the entire economic element of the Olympics where they spend billions of dollars building stadiums and expecting people to show up.”

‘Basketball is designed for the infection, and NFL is the same’
‘Basketball is designed for the infection, and NFL is the same’. Photograph: Derick E Hingle/USA Today Sports

When is the appropriate time for fans to be let back into stadiums?

Favini: “I’d be surprised if we can do it this year. It may be well until 2021 before we let fans into stadiums. If we can rapidly scale up testing to the degree where everyone in the country can get tested on a weekly basis, we can start allowing people who have proven negative test results into stadiums in smaller groups. That scale of testing could be possible at the end of this year. But in the absence of that, we’ll probably have to wait until a vaccine, which would be the middle of next year.”

Dreher: “A vaccine will have to be available, developed, and proven effective. Hopefully at that point, people can get back close together into the typical sports experience that we’re used to. There are different timelines when that could happen, but for people to be traveling, coming together, and in that kind of close proximity, a vaccine is key.”

Bulsiewicz: “To be honest, we’re pretty far away from that. We need to get to a place where the virus is not a threat to our community or you need a system in place to adequately test fans or demonstrate that they are not carriers of the infection. How can you control for the person who doesn’t know that they’re sick, and shows up to, say, a Michigan college football game where there are 100,000 people breathing on each other?”

Should sports be used as an engine to jumpstart the economy?

Favini: “Live sporting events with large audiences shouldn’t lead the way for reopening the economy because getting 40,000 people into a stadium is actually one of the more dangerous things to do. I think it will be one of the last things to happen.”

Wiebe: “So much of the American identity [is linked] with sports, but we need to be very patient when sports come back. We shouldn’t try to give short change to Covid-19 because it will continue to warrant strict social distancing measures. We really have to nip it in the bud now to the best extent we can.”

What can fans learn from this pandemic once it is over?

Dreher: “A lot of things will be different especially in the acute period afterwards. Hopefully people will realize the importance of washing your hands. Realizing how fluid our society is from a contact and transportation side, and how linked in sports are with the travel, contact, and outreach.”

Wiebe: “We may not be able to enjoy the atmosphere of a stadium the way that we used to. We need to have delayed gratification. The good news is that right now people are hungry for some sense of normalcy, so some type of engagement [is] a reason for optimism, which is what sports brings us. Even having fans enjoy sports from their homes could go a long way to making people remaining patient and willing to do social distancing.”

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