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NBA’s COVID-19 Testing Raises Practical, Ethical Concerns

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Can laboratories turn around COVID-19 tests quickly enough to help the NBA maintain a healthy environment?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Orlando Magic Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Rapid turnaround of results from COVID-19 testing is one of the pillars upon which the NBA season resumption is built. Nearly every discussion of health in the midst of the Orlando, Florida “bubble” has included the words, “daily testing”. That presumes daily results will also be available, else the exercise is in vain.

According to an article by Tom Haberstroh of NBCsports.com, league officials and medical professionals fear that instant results may not be possible in a system overburdened by a huge number of tests. Were it possible to fast-lane sports leagues ahead of testing for the general public, some professionals hold concerns that the practice may not be ethical.

Haberstroh begins the piece with this startling assessment of the league’s fears about the virus:

“There are no atheists in the league office right now,” one team executive told NBC Sports.”

This is confirmed by a prominent health expert:

Said Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University: “If I was Adam Silver, I’d be white-knuckling it this week.”

The ability to process COVID-19 tests is at the heart of the issue. In the article, Haberstroh details the inability of the NBA’s original lab, Quest Diagnostics, to keep up with testing demand. The league switched to BioReference Laboratories upon entering the Orlando “bubble”. The new provider appears to be keeping up with the league’s requirements, but this is not necessarily true of their service overall:

BioReference is experiencing serious delays with the general public. As of Thursday morning, patients attempting to access test results on the BioReference website would be met with an alert that reads: “If you are looking for your COVID-19 PCR (swab) results please note that these may not be available in the patient portal for up to 5-7 days after collection. As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for your patience during this unprecedented time.”

The local stories in Orlando involving BioReference are alarming. Last week, Central Florida’s CBS affiliate WKMG reported that a 74-year-old cancer survivor, along with several senior citizens at a nursing home, waited over a week for their results after being tested at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), one of the busiest testing sites in the state of Florida. The OCCC’s testing provider: BioReference.

The situation raises questions from a medical standpoint. Should sports league get access to results more quickly than people who might have contracted the virus and are awaiting test results that could be critically important to their future?

“We should be thinking very, very carefully about whether that’s something we want to be doing right now,” Binney said. “Diverting desperately needed testing capacity to support pro sports, which is what seems to be happening right now, is extremely questionable.”

Haberstroh’s article also addresses potential shortcomings in the NBA quarantine period, the hospital bed situation in Florida, and much more.